Story originally published March 16 in the Concord Monitor and republished with permission as part of the Granite State News Collaborative
CONCORD, NH — At Concordia Lutheran Church, the decision to shut down the With One Heart daycare center Monday was tough but inescapable.
The state of New Hampshire had already ordered school buildings shuttered, explained Rev. Jonathan Hopkins. New positive cases of COVID-19 were being announced throughout the state, and workers in other industries were staying home to work remotely.
“It was a really hard decision for us,” he said. “We see this as a ministry, an outreach to parents who are working. We really want to support working parents. But I think that the health concerns overrode that.”
Over at the Early Enrichment Center on Chenell drive, the mindset is different. They’re staying open until they’re told by the state otherwise, said center director Beth Smarse.
“We serve government and health care employees, so we know that we need to be open so that they can go to work,” Smarse said.
It’s a delicate, maddening decision to make. But as Gov. Chris Sununu and top New Hampshire officials work to encourage daycare facilities to keep their doors open and even expand to meet anticipated demand in coming days, that decision has varied from center to center.
On Friday, Sununu signed a declaration of emergency that included an executive order to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to waive licensing requirements for any daycare facility interested in expanding capacity.
On Monday, the governor said that he wanted to provide resources for child care facilities to “lean in” throughout the crisis and stay open.
To do that, the state would be offering centers guidance surrounding sanitation, social distancing for parents and screening processes for kids, Sununu said.
“We have seen some states close child care facilities,” Sununu told WMUR. “That’s a very big decision, because now you’re really putting a lot of workforce – you’re asking nurses and doctors to stay at home potentially to watch those kids because they can’t get child care for their young ones. And that again pulls, creates an exponential effect on the health care system.”
“So those are big decisions we have to make,” he added, “but I think that by providing some guidance, by asking folks to lean in, (we’re) really asking folks to understand that we’re all in this together, and we need folks to really help us step up, be part of that solution, and they are.”
For some center directors, that’s a need they’re happy to continue to fill.
“We have no intention of closing, unless we are forced to,” Smarse said. The director of Early Enrichment has watched the press conferences with the governor and followed the policy changes.
For Smarse, the calculation boils down to two factors: they want to continue to serve families, and they can’t afford to lose the revenue.
“It would put a small business like ours out of business, essentially,” she said.
Smarse and other members of staff have introduced new processes to cope with the viral threat. They’ve regularly disinfected the facility, they’ve discontinued tours and they’ve requested parents drop their children off at the door.
But Smarse said the facility, which is licensed for 65 children, has no plans to expand its capacity. There’s simply less demand as the virus takes hold, Smarse said.
The facility saw a decrease of attendance to 26 on Monday – down from an average of 50 in normal times, Smarse said.
Against that reality, not only is the facility not worried about needing to expand, it’s increasingly worried about parents pulling out, Smarse said. Some of them are paying to hold their child’s spot, but may withdraw as the virus continues to spread, she said.
“I think most people are looking at it where they’re hoping this is a two- to three-week thing and we can get through this,” Smarse said.
Other centers have a different outlook on closure. Leaders of the With One Heart daycare sent out a letter to parents on Friday informing them that they would close the facility if the state decided to shut down the schools. On Sunday, Sununu announced just that, and on Monday the center closed.
To shutter schools but not daycare is a little perplexing to Harmony DeScruscio, the director of With One Heart.
“We don’t see – if they’re not allowing for schools – why they would increase capacity for child care?” she said of the state.
Rev. Hopkins agreed. “It seems like a mixed message,” he said.
At noon Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services held a conference call with directors of daycare centers. The reaction was similarly split. Some centers thought the facilities should close to contain the spread, others saw it as their duty to stay open, according to several people on the call.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Jake Leon, said that the state is not pushing day care facilities in any direction, and that the expansion offer is just an option.
Meanwhile, an escalating series of decisions made Monday may hasten the decision for day care facilities to close.
Monday evening, Chris Emond, CEO of the Concord Boys and Girls Club, said its after school program would shut down, a decision made in part due to a severe drop in attendance Monday.
Manchester Boys and Girls Club issued the following statement on March 15:
“The safety and well-being of our members, families and staff is our top priority. Now that Manchester Public Schools are closed,all BGCM programs and sites are also closed for the same duration. This is a rapidly changing situation and we will continue to evaluate and address our response plan as best we can. Please continue to follow our Facebook page, parent alerts and website for updated information. Thank you for your understanding and support.”
One Concord facility remains on the fence. Jim Snodgrass, executive director of Second Start, had decided to keep his 110-capacity facility open Monday afternoon. But it was a complicated decision, and one he’s decided he may change as soon as Merrimack County reports its first case.
“It’s such a tough place to be because you don’t want to just throw out the health concerns, but there also is just a contagious paranoia that’s just running rampant,” he said.
“I’m definitely concerned about our employees, and I’m also concerned about all the parents that use us,: he said.So it’s a delicate balance.”
(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)
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