Furniture is wrapped in plastic inside of a closed day care center on July 13, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Laura Efford, a preschool teacher in Albemarle County, is anxiously awaiting September, when her Bright Stars classroom (an early childhood education program based in some local elementary schools) is scheduled to reopen.

“A lot of what we do in preschool is learning through play,” she said. “Building with blocks and all that stuff.” But she’s having a hard time visualizing what her classroom will look like come fall under the state’s Phase III guidelines for child care providers, which lay out a series of rigorous health recommendations for reopening.

Those include six-foot social distancing between children, “robust” sanitation practices and cloth face coverings for staff and students over the age of two. For children under four, group size is limited to 12, including teachers (that increases to 22 for children four and older). Those groups should not mix, per the recommendations, and “individual play” is strongly encouraged.

The guidelines have left Efford with several unanswered questions. How can she make sure a group of four-year-olds keeps their masks on all day? How does she tell her students that they can’t hug each other in the classroom? And how can she implement the guidelines without losing the basic tenets of early childhood education, which emphasizes social and emotional development?

Then there are logistical questions about running a preschool during the COVID-19 pandemic. Efford said there’s a quarantine room reserved at Scottsville Elementary School, where her program is based, for any student who starts showing signs of COVID-19 on campus. But she said she still hasn’t seen a detailed plan on what would happen if the school had a confirmed case. And what if she came down with symptoms? She’d need a substitute for at least a few days before the results came back, “and we have a countywide sub shortage,” Efford said. If she did get COVID, she knows she would be expected to quarantine. But what about her young students?

“That’s a huge question for me and I haven’t heard any answers along those lines,” Efford said. Nor has she gotten guidance from the school about ways to change her curriculum to adapt to the new guidance.

Like many providers, her feelings right now are mixed. While some of the guidelines seem “strange” or almost unworkable (Efford wonders what she’ll do for students who can’t tie their own shoes), they’re also one of the only clear protections against new infections. Scientific evidence on COVID-19 transmission among schoolchildren is still mixed, and Efford said she’s not confident that the state has enough testing and tracing resources to keep people safe.

As the debate over how to reopen K-12 schools continues to rage across Virginia, child care providers have been notably absent from the discussion. Unlike schools, day care facilities and preschools were never required to close. In fact, in the first several weeks of the pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged providers to stay open to care for children of essential workers.

But parents and providers say navigating the guidelines has become an increasing challenge, especially as the rest of the state opens back up. As of July 14, 2,261 of Virginia’s more than 6,000 child care care centers had closed —  nearly 40 percent, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services, which regulates child care programs.

Only 664 of those closed centers have contacted the agency to provide a reopening date, spokeswoman Cletisha Lovelace wrote in a Wednesday email. It’s created a conundrum for many working parents, who are increasingly being asked to return to work with no clear options for child care.

“Are you going to be drawing straws?” said Andrew Pennock, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia. “Because that’s pretty crazy.” Another problem, he pointed out, is that the state’s guidelines are forcing some facilities to reduce class sizes even if they do remain open. Pennock said his family’s co-op preschool in Charlottesville had to reduce enrollment from 26 students to 20 — almost a quarter of the school’s normal capacity. 

“Which means, in practice, that we’ve reduced our tuition as well,” he said. “We’re going to run a deficit this year because of that and because we’ve had to hire extra staff. So, if we didn’t have an endowment, we wouldn’t be financially solvent.”

Child care providers across Virginia are facing similar challenges. Class size limits and new “no-mixing policies” are likely to become some of the biggest hurdles for providers, most of whom already operate on “razor-thin margins,” according to one study on the impacts of COVID-19 on early education in Louisiana. While some providers in the survey expressed concerns over finding crucial materials such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant cleaners and gloves, the price of those items would likely be far outweighed by staffing costs and reduced enrollment fees, said Anna Markowitz, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Education and Information Studies. 

“Moving forward, those costs will still exist, but they’ll be small relative to the changed operational costs that come around with new rules and regulations,” added Markowitz, who collaborated with UVA researchers on the study. Reducing class size has an obvious effect on enrollment, but guidelines preventing groups of children from mixing also has an impact on staffing, she said. In Virginia, like most states, licensed child care providers have to follow set staff-to-children ratios, which are highest for babies and toddlers. 

“So, a director might have to plan for the maximum number of infants showing up,” Markowitz said. “But if they don’t show up that day, not only do they lose that revenue, but they also have to pay this teacher. Normally, they could flip them into another classroom, but instead, they kind of just have to be there. Because they can’t go work with other kids.” It’s a particular challenge for state-subsidized providers, who typically receive funding based on enrollment.

The state’s $70 million allocation of CARES Act funding was intended to help mitigate some of those costs. According to VDSS, the state increased the number of paid absences for subsidized child care providers through April, May and June, allowing them to receive reimbursements even if their programs were closed. They also provided grants to child care centers that remained open and followed the state’s safety guidelines. Northam even set aside $500,000 for local school districts who stepped in to provide emergency child care during the closures (though none of the state’s 132 school divisions have taken advantage of the funding, according to Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education).

A total of 2,566 programs have been approved to receive CARES Act grant, according to Lovelace. But Emily Griffey, policy director for the child advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children, said some providers are reporting that they still haven’t received their funding. Distributions were also capped at $100 times half the licensed capacity at each facility for April, May and June (for example, $2,500 per month for a provider with a capacity of 50 children or $600 for a capacity of 12). 

“So, for smaller providers, that’s clearly not making up what you would normally have received from tuition,” Griffey said. VDSS reported that it awarded just over $23 million through its 2,566 grants, but it’s unclear how the remaining funding will be distributed.

If the subsidies aren’t extended past June, Griffey said providers will continue to struggle. At the federal level, there’s proposed legislation to increase funding for child care, but the future of the bill is still uncertain.

“There is a real concern that eventually places will shutter and eventually families will not have a place to send their kids,” Markowitz said. “The calls for bailing out child care that you’re starting to see — that’s really what it’s about. It’s saying, ‘This is not going to work. There’s going to be massive closures.’”

The Center for American Progress has estimated that up to 45 percent of Virginia’s child care capacity could close without adequate support. Pennock said there are ongoing questions over whether Virginia’s reopening guidelines are “financially feasible” for providers, a concern echoed by working parents whose daycares have closed or reduced class sizes.

But both Griffey and Markowitz pointed out that it’s difficult to avoid safety restrictions amid ongoing concerns over whether in-person classes are safe for students and teachers. Griffey said she’s heard from child care providers in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads region who experienced cases of COVID-19 — among both children and staff — and received inconsistent guidance from their local health departments on how long to close and how siblings should be treated. While the Virginia Department of Health lists outbreaks in “educational settings” on its public dashboard, it’s refused to provide a breakdown of how many cases have occurred in preschools, colleges, or K-12 schools. 

Some parents just aren’t ready to send their children back to daycare. Efford said her program typically has between 10 to 12 students enrolled, but so far this year, only six have signed up. Samantha Spinney, an education researcher in Fairfax County, said the daycare where she sent her two-year-old son closed temporarily in March but plans to reopen this August. A couple weeks after it closed, she and her husband had their second child, which helped them decide not to re-enroll for the next year or so.

“We ended up hiring a nanny instead to minimize our risk, especially since we have a newborn,” Spinney wrote in an email on Tuesday.

For other parents, the shortage of child care options has become a significant source of stress. Haley Feldhaus, who works at a fitness center in Northern Virginia, said she was furloughed after gyms in Virginia closed, which allowed her to care for her two sons — then in preschool and first grade — while their schools were shut down. Now that she’s back at work, she’s juggling child care and her job and wondering what to do if school goes fully remote in the fall. 

“If I have to quit my job, my family will be okay,” she said. “But not every mom has that luxury, and there’s really no solutions being offered for two-parent working households. The conversation is not even being had. And that’s the frustration for me. What I’m hearing is that, ‘Okay, in 2020, I can either have kids or have a job, but not both.’”