Earlier this week, Lonna Rittelmann spoke about her Rapho Township day care, describing its main room where children pass toys back and forth, learning to share as they play.
At least that’s the way it was before COVID-19 made its way to Lancaster County, forcing most day care centers to close and others to adopt new, strict procedures to protect children from the virus’ spread.
Now, Rittelmann’s 1,000-square-foot main room has been divided into sections, where individual children can play with toys that are cleaned every day. Sharing is no more, she said.
“I could just cry,” Rittelmann said, choking back tears as she spoke about the rapid and unexpected changes at Nanny’s Playschool.
They’re changes that have become a reality for child care facilities across the county, where operators have been forced to contend with new regulations, increased workloads and decreased revenue. That’s all while caring for confused and sometimes scared children, Rittelman said.
Since mid-March, Lancaster County has remained under the state’s most restrictive lockdown phase — one that stipulates child care centers must close, said Ali Fogarty, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.
However, waivers and exemptions to that rule have allowed some day cares to remain open so that children of essential workers can be cared for. In Lancaster County, only 54 of 245 licensed providers remained open as of Thursday, according to Fogarty.
Among them is Rittelmann, who talked this week about the struggles of caring for children from behind both a mask and face shield.
Daily children temperature checks, seemingly endless hand-washing and aggressive social distancing have become a part of her routine.
“The mask wearing and the hand washing is just absolutely exhausting,” she said.
And through it all, her day care, which can serve about a dozen children at a time, has lost about half of its business, Rittelmann said. That’s because virus-related business closures have meant parents are out of work and at home, available to watch their own kids.
‘I am losing a lot of money’
A similar reduction in cared-for children was reported at Malave Child Care Center in East Lampeter Township. And owner Marisol Malave said that means decreased revenue without a reduction in any of her overhead costs, which now also include bleach and Lysol.
“I am losing a lot of money,” Malave said, adding she is looking forward to a time when business is back to normal. “I love the kids. I miss all of the kids.”
At the center, mask wearing is required for employees and encouraged among children, but Malave admitted many of the younger ones take them off immediately. They don’t understand it.
Both Rittelmann and Malave said they were attempting to follow child care guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
‘They’re my kids’
Similar procedures have been implemented at day cares run by U-GRO Learning Centres, which has six Lancaster County locations, spokeswoman Brittany Tomaso said.
But Tracy Adams, owner of Tracy’s Family Daycare in Elizabethtown, said CDC guidelines aren’t rules; they are suggestions.
While Adams is still taking precautions, they aren’t nearly as strict, she said, adding that she isn’t worried about mask-wearing or limiting children’s interaction.
“I am a person who believes the kids build immunity,” she said.
Still, like the others, she has seen a reduction in both revenue and the number of children she’s caring for.
She’s also had to rethink the way she charges parents, who used to pay a weekly or monthly fee for child care, a contracted fee that remained unchanged even if parents changed their minds and kept children home when they were expected at the day care.
Now, Adams said she realizes changes to child care needs can occur rapidly due to unforeseen circumstances like layoffs and illness, so she is working with parents to address payment issues on a case-by-case basis.
Still, she is looking forward to a day when the pandemic ends and the children she’s grown to know are back under her care.
“They’re my kids,” she said. “I’m hopeful they’re coming back.”