Morning Call: Lehigh Valley child care centers could collapse under coronavirus. Will federal aid rescue the industry?
April 4, 2020 By: Anthony Salamone

Jennifer Butz-Smith marked her business’ 15th anniversary last month quietly.

“It came on March 18,” Smith, the owner of Horizon of Learning day care in Emmaus, said recently, “So it came with all the other stuff. We didn’t even get a chance to celebrate.”

The child care center’s anniversary fell the same week Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all nonessential businesses to shut down over the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s 15 years of my heart and soul, of keeping this going,” she said. “Then it comes down to, ‘Oh my goodness, all this is happening.’”

Smith is like hundreds of child care providers and workers in the region. Their future is uncertain as they hang on in fear that their centers — like so many smaller businesses — might be unable to manage through the health crisis.

The state last week approved waivers that allowed some 700 child care facilities to operate to serve children of essential workers. Smith’s facility is among some 70 in and around the Lehigh Valley, according to the Department of Human Services.

For her center, it meant reopening for 10 children among her working families who needed child care; she said she has not taken on new clients.

But like many operators, she’s had to curtail operations and cut staff; Smith said she laid off eight of her nine employees, leaving one teacher and herself for the children’s facility that normally handles 60 children from early childhood to fifth grade.

Has she been experiencing sleepless nights, or nightmares? No, the upbeat Smith said, but, “It’s always on my mind. You are responsible, not only for people’s children, but the livelihoods of my staff. They depend on me that they can pay their bills. That’s the added stressor.”

Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers closed for a week for cleaning and then reopened three of its 30 sites, two in Lehigh County and one in Northampton County, for children whose parents work in essential businesses.

Remington White, a support staffer at the center, said he decided to come back to work, where he’d receive extra pay.

“Our essential employees, they need to do their jobs to keep us up and running as a country, as a community,” he said. “It’s my way of contributing through these hard times.”

White said there are fewer children per staff member, and they’ve been doing activities that call for more sitting down than running around to keep children apart in this era of social distancing.

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