JoCo on the Go Podcast: Child care challenges during a pandemic

On JoCo on the Go, episode #125, hear about the child care challenges facing both parents of young children and child care providers. As the pandemic continues, parents are making efforts to get to work while being mindful of isolation and quarantine requirements when kids and close contacts get sick. Meanwhile, providers are doing all they can to keep kids and staff healthy while addressing the rising costs of operating. Find out about extra safety protocols, including masking and cleaning. Learn about the resources to help all involved.

JoCo on the Go webcast, episode #125: Child care challenges during a pandemic

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Time Subject
00:30 Introduction
01:11 Child care and omicron
06:49 Isolation and quarantine in child care facilities
11:48 How child care facilities are faring during the latest surge
16:28 Finding child care in the county
20:33 Help for parents


Relevant Links

The Family Conservancy

Daycare Connection


Theresa Freed 00:00

Many Johnson County families are facing child care challenges as the COVID 19 pandemic continues. On this episode hear from our child care program expert in a local provider to discuss some of the difficulties with keeping kids and staff healthy and facilities operating.

Announcer 00:16

Whether you live in or just love Johnson County Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed 00:30

Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host Theresa Freed, a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Many working parents of young children are having a tough time right now. The rise in COVID-19 cases in our community is taking a toll with quarantine and isolation requirements and a highly transmissible variant out there. Child care facilities and parents are struggling. Here to talk more about that we have with us Eldonna Chesnut. She's the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment Child Care Licensing Division Director. And we also have with us Lisa Heinbach, a local child care provider, in Shawnee. Thank you both for being here.

Eldonna Chesnut 01:06

Thank you, Theresa.

Theresa Freed 01:09

Alright, just to start off, I'll have you kind of introduce yourself in your role. Eldonna if you want to begin with kind of what you do for Johnson County and then also if you can describe the division of responsibilities between Johnson County and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment as it pertains to child care.

Eldonna Chesnut 01:26

Sure, thanks for having us Theresa. So basically, as you said I am the Division Director of child care licensing and our relationship with KDHE so essentially we are contracted with the state so that we are essentially the boots on the ground, I guess you say we do the local regulatory work at the local level. So we are there to support the providers, answer their questions, do their visits, do everything like that. And then everything is sent up to KDHE visit wise for them for any enforcement actions or anything along that line.

Theresa Freed 01:59

Okay, Lisa, if you want to talk a little bit about your facility and your role.

Lisa Heinbach 02:02

Good morning. My name is Lisa Heinbach. I am the Goddard owner here in Shawnee, Kansas, we work with children ages infant through five years of age, and we have about 140 students in our school. Thank you.

Theresa Freed 02:17

All right. Well, thank you very much for being here once again. So you know, the big topic of conversation right now is we've got this omicron variant in the community. It's very transmissible, and I just can't even imagine the struggles that providers are going through right now trying to stay in operation, and then keep their staff healthy and help with the kids staying healthy. So maybe we'll start with Eldonna, can you talk about what you're hearing from providers in terms of what they're experiencing?

Eldonna Chesnut 02:46

Sure. Thank you. So yes, we had a provider meeting just a few days a few days ago, and and we get phone calls all the time. So yes, definitely, which I'm sure Lisa can attest to it. It's horribly stressful. You know, it's horribly stressful for providers, because they're kind of getting it from both sides, you might say, you know, they're trying, they're, they're trying to keep open, they're trying to keep the kids safe. So they're getting hold of us, we're trying to give them best guidance, evidence-based guidance on what to do. But then they're also getting pushback from the parents. So I think it's just everybody it's just maximum stress level right now just trying to do the best we can, hoping that we're getting closer to being done with this

Theresa Freed 03:28

As a parent of young children you know I'm on a lot of social media groups where I'm seeing conversations about, you know, these challenges. And of course, you're hearing it directly from your parents. Lisa, do you want to talk a little bit about, you know, as a provider, what are you experiencing?

Lisa Heinbach 03:42

Yeah, and I agree with Eldonna, just you, we want to, we want to do the best thing for everyone, right? We want our students to stay healthy. And well, we want our parents to be able to be at work and do what they need to do and keep our doors open. Right? And yet we're faced with like you shared a variant that's really contagious this go around. And so it's just been challenging to do that well. And so trying to do the best we can.

Theresa Freed 04:17

And so the pandemic, it's, it feels sort of never ending at this point. I know, like safety precautions and things like that have evolved as we move through this. So what does that look like in a facility? What are some of those safety measures that are taking place.

Eldonna Chesnut 04:32

So from our standpoint, what we try to do is whenever a provider calls and says they have a positive case, we tried to go through with them, okay, who was exposed, who was masked who was you know, was there, we try to give him as much flexibility as possible. One of the things we've done in Johnson County that not all of my peer counties have done is called cohorting. And so if their facility reports one case, but there's no other children positive in that classroom or symptomatic, and especially if it's an external exposure, meaning that the child probably caught the virus from somebody outside the daycare, then we do allow that facility to keep that room open, we do help encourage them, make sure their parents know about that know what to watch for, and really be assessing those kids for signs and symptoms. And then unfortunately, if there is two or more cases in the classroom, especially if it's deemed to be internal spread, then for the health and safety of those children that we do ask to close that classroom down. And the as your you're so right, things change so frequently and I can't believe it's only been two years. But we do try to give him as much flexibility as possible. And now with the new guidance, you know, if it was so they were out for 10 days, you know, if your positive case, you're out for 10 days, your closures are out, and we're able to help out with a little bit on there from 14 to 10. And okay, well, they can test it day six. And if they're asymptomatic exposure, and they get a negative test, I can come back at day eight. And then now with the five days, so it really kind of depends on the age of the kids. And if they can mask, because if we can get everybody mask and a quality mask, and we can get them to to be able to wear their mask well, when they're old enough, then we can keep those kids in the facilities and keep them safer. However, with the younger ones that are totally unable to mask and unable to vaccinate, then we have to be more stringent in our recommendations. So I think you know, it really I think it has helped with kids being able to get vaccinated now because we're able to keep them in the in the facilities without having to say, Okay, everybody out, and I'm able to get more options to continue to come to care.

Theresa Freed 06:49

And so Lisa, do you want to talk about how the quarantine and isolation all that impacts from an operating perspective, but then also, how does that impact the families?

Lisa Heinbach 07:00

Yeah, and I, so a couple things just that we're doing at, you know, at our school to try and minimize it is, I think the biggest thing that's been helpful is that as a community, and I mean, my parents and my teachers, just communicating early signs of illness, right, and they let us know here in the front office, and we really walk through the next steps. Because as proactive as we can be to keep it out ensures that we're able to keep our rooms open, and just my community of families and staff have done an amazing job of that. And I'm thankful for it. And then of course, we are taking temperatures were doing the rigorous cleaning that child care centers are known for, we're strongly recommending that those who can mask mask, following the guidelines of the health department as well. And to Eldonna's point, just thankful that they have really worked with us, as a county and locally to address the problems and challenges. And I think it has helped us keep classes open in the midst of this so thankful for that. Well, Donna takes our calls at all hours and will specifically looking at each classroom and what is occurring and help us make good decisions.

Theresa Freed 08:25

So when a facility has to close a classroom, what are the options available for parents?

Eldonna Chesnut 08:34

Well, from our standpoint, I say that's kind of we really try not to close if we don't have to, we don't want to make that recommendation. And when we do it's not taken lightly. It's usually in consultation with a couple of MPs and disease investigators and everything. We're trying to go over all the options. But from our standpoint, when we make that recommendation to close a room, that means that those families should be staying home, you know, if the room has to close, that's a serious move. And that, that means that those kids shouldn't just go on to another daycare center. They shouldn't go on to out running around, you know, going to the mall or whatever, and they should stay at home and they should be quarantined, because that's kind of the intent. We're really trying to get to break that chain of infection. And we're you know, that's one of the concerns that we actually have is that okay, the rooms closed, but now, where are these kids ending up at? So we really want to get that message across is if your room your child's room gets closed, please keep those kids at home in quarantine.

Theresa Freed 09:36

Now, I imagine that is a very challenging thing for parents. You know, I have a four-year-old and he's in preschool half day and you know, he wears his mask as best he can. But you know, when kids are that young, it's hard to always enforce those safety precautions. I can't imagine. You know, the difference between like when my nine-year-old was a toddler or a baby in a daycare facility. You know, you just kind of live with the fact that kids get colds and it's those are contagious and you just that's the way it is. But at this day and age, if a child shows a sign of a cold, what do you do? Like is it passed off as a cold? Or do you say as soon as I start seeing a runny nose, you know, that's time to take action?

Lisa Heinbach 10:23

Just like Eldonna works with each center, Eldonna and her team, I should say, works with each center so well to look at each situation, we do that with our families as well, right. So that's why we communicate out to parents first and let's walk through symptoms. And let's walk through the history of allergies that you know with your child, or what else may be in the home or going around and really lean into working with their pediatricians as well. And realizing that you don't jump right away to say that all things are COVID. Because there's a lot of other illness going around and trying to be very wise in next steps to the best of our ability, it's not going to be perfect. I think just communication is the key through it.

Eldonna Chesnut 11:15

If I can add on to that, I think that's a really great point. Because we get so caught up and COVID that we forget other diseases are still out there. And especially now we're into the flu season as well. So you know, we do want to encourage folks remember that, unfortunately, flu and COVID have a lot of similar symptoms, so that a lot of times if they are testing for, for one to test for the other, and that will help their daycare facilities as well know if it's something contagious, that they need to be aware of and addressing or if it's just a cold.

Theresa Freed 11:48

And so next I just want to look at sort of the landscape of child care in Johnson County, what are we seeing in terms of trends are people, the providers? Are they getting overwhelmed and closing down? Because there's just so much to deal with? Are we seeing more of them popping up? Or what are we seeing?

Eldonna Chesnut 12:06

I'll address the first part. So we continue to have new applications coming in both centers and homes, and probably not as not as fast as we did pre pandemic. But we are still seeing new applications in practice today. Well, this week, I've had two requests for new center meetings so that that's good for the county, we overall are seeing a small decrease in the total number of facilities that permanently closed. But that's very few that in the past few years even, that have permanently closed as far as a center standpoint, our homes open and close all the time. Really not connecting that 100% to COVID. We think there's a lot of reason home providers open and close. It could be that they retire, they are moving they're you know, changing houses, they have to have a new license. So I really think that while yes, we've had some several temporary closures, especially on that home side, because if you have it, that's where they live, that's where their daycare is. So if they have a positive case there, it's more likely that they're end up having to close their facility, you know, for five to 10 days just because it is their home as well, where the centers have a little more flexibility on that they're able to like do a room or two at a time versus having to close the whole center. Now that said we have had it this week. I think part of it is that we've been doing this for two years. They're tired, you know? And there's a staffing shortage. And you're worried about people are worried about their own health plus everything else. So we have had in the past week, a couple of facilities that have said, you know, we're just going to take a short break. You know, we have very few kids coming. We have a lot of people out sick, we have staffing shortages. So we're going to close for a week or two weeks. But I think that it's's not widespread, which is good, though and pre-pandemic we had definitely tons of openings for child care. And not to say that we don't know, it's just, it is getting more difficult, because of the staffing shortages as well as the disease rate at this point in time.

Theresa Freed 14:23

You know, another trend I'm seeing or at least some conversation is that providers are in a position where they're raising rates, maybe because of the increased cost associated with all the safety precautions and operating. And can you talk about that? Are you seeing that?

Eldonna Chesnut 14:39

On an annual basis, one of our resource and referral agencies, Day Care Connection, they do an annual survey, price survey, and it's for daycare homes, it doesn't hit the centers, but they do survey all the centers. And then they will say, 'Well, here's what, in the school district, here's the average price. So it will be interesting to see this year if there's any changes on that side. But then that pretty much back to Lisa, for the rest of that.

Lisa Heinbach 15:04

I think you're absolutely right across the board, I think with other centers in my area, that is something that we've all had to do, because of the rising costs, a lot of our supplies that we get to run have had have doubled in costs if not tripled. And then the probably the most significant that is the greatest cost to all of us is the staffing. And that has, that has increased significantly as well. So in order to make sure that we remain open and are able to provide the care that we do had to do that.

Theresa Freed 15:50

And so on the other side of that, are we seeing as a response that we're seeing more parents making that tough decision about maybe one parent is a stay at home parent so that we were not using child care any longer? Are you seeing any of that?

Lisa Heinbach 16:04

On my end at least, I've not seen that. What's happening actually the need for care. I am turning away a lot of families because my next available opening is so far down the road. And I feel really bad because I just realized that I think care finding care is challenging,

Theresa Freed 16:28

What resources are available for parents who are running into this issue where they're, they're not able to find child care like they typically could.

Eldonna Chesnut 16:37

So yeah, I think that you know, to, to answer your question directly, the resource and referral agencies and we have two in our county that work with us Daycare Connection, and The Family Conservancy. And when I spoke with Daycare Connection, there is still a lot of openings, especially like what they do mailing to homes, and there's a lot of openings. But the problem is it's not always where the parent wants it. Now, some of our really good facilities, they'll have a long waiting list. But you've got that that's kind of where the challenge is, because in Johnson County, we have nearly 1000 facilities in our county. So and that's gone down, some it's gone down. When I first started about 20 years ago, we were at 1300 facilities, and we're now close to 2000. Now, but I think the biggest challenge on our county pre pandemic was it just wasn't where they wanted it at. And the now I think it is more challenging as, as Lisa mentioned, that fact that some facilities aren't taking new kids, we have some of our facilities that are connected with businesses that told me on your we're only going to take just employee kids right now. So it is becoming more challenging right now due to the pandemic. But I really feel like once we get out from under that, that will lessen. So to circle back to your direct question. So right now parents are looking for care, they should contact the resource and referral agencies. And again, you can Google that their phone numbers there on our website. If they they're both Daycare Connection deals mainly in homes, and their database is set up by school district. So if somebody says I'm looking for daycare home in the school district, then there'll be a provide that Family Conservancy has a main office in Wyandotte and they have a satellite office here and serve our county as well. And their database is setup just a little bit differently. But again, the provider or the sorry, the parent, would say here's what I'm looking for. I want home, I want a center, I want this location, I have a child this age group. And then they're able to give them a list of facilities that they can pick the parent can reach out to. The challenge is, of course, keeping everything current right now, because both R&Rs check in with their facilities and say how many openings do you have, what's going on and trying to keep current, but with things changing so fast right now, and especially with the...a room could be open today and closed tomorrow. It really it is making it quite the challenge. But I think that's still the best way to go. And we do...just be careful about social media, I guess I would say. We don't, we don't encourage parents just go on to 'Oh, hey, I've got this child care coming to me,' because there is illegal child care. And basically what that means is in Kansas, you have to be licensed to provide child care. And that's two or more children greater than 20 hours a week total care. And so if somebody just says okay, I'm just gonna start caring for kids. The safeguard is gone for the parents, because when you're a licensed facility, you have my staff coming in on a at least a yearly basis. We do an initial visit where we look at everything, all the regulations, and they're all health and safety data. And then of course, you know, centers too they get the same thing. If there are problems, if there are things that were non compliant, we're back checking on that. And then of course, the complaints anytime that a parent or a neighbor or a repairman, we've kind of gotten them from everywhere, sees anything that concerns them, then they contact us. And then we're going to go out and investigate that. So with our whole roles, make sure the kids are healthy, safe learning environment. So when you're taking your when a child goes to an illegal care, you've kind of removed all of those safeguards on the parent's side.

Theresa Freed 20:33

All right, there's some good information in it, just as we wrap up today, we want to give, give our listeners some hope that you know, things are going to improve. I know, nobody knows when the pandemic itself will end. And, and we just know a lot of parents are struggling right now to deal with this very important issue. So in addition to the referral resources that are available, what additional support might be available to parents?

Eldonna Chesnut 20:59

I guess from the standpoint of where we deal with parents, would be if a parent calls and says, I'm looking for daycare, we're going to refer him to the resource and referral agency, if they have a question about their daycare, and we're going to talk to them and help them to understand that. So from our standpoint, we're supporting the providers. So if a parent says, Well, I, my daycare said I couldn't come to care because of isolation, quarantine, whatever, we're going to review those guidelines and help them make sure that they know that, you know, what's going on with their daycare. Again, a licensed facility gives parents safer, more safeguards, than a unlicensed facility. So from like, say, from our standpoint, that's probably pretty much how the contact we have with parents is when they call in. I think some of the centers do newsletters and they're communicating. So I don't know exactly what all centers do. So I don't know if there's anything else that that you would want to add on to that. Lisa?

Lisa Heinbach 22:02

Yeah, I mean, just this, how do we support our families? I mean, we, we just continue to work as a team and communicate through it. And I would say through the course of the majority of COVID, we've been able to remain open and running and thriving, and really ensuring that our kids feel the least amount of impact through all this. Right. That's the main goal. And then our families as well. So I'm hopeful in the days ahead that we're going to start seeing a return to normal. And so I don't know, I guess I don't think we're too far from that.

Theresa Freed 22:42

But certainly hope. Yeah, and we will have some information on our on the show notes of this episode about where parents and providers can go to reach out to Eldonna and her team to get more information about those safety measures that are in place and providing reassurance and then also this resource and referral guides that can help parents and providers as well. Well thank you both for being here today. Hopefully this information is useful to our listeners, and thanks for listening.

Announcer 23:11

You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast visit Thanks for listening.

District Court Trustee
Health and Environment