On a typical day, about 90 children spend their days at St. Elizabeth’s Child Development Center. One showed up on Thursday.

With so few children, the Portland child care center closed indefinitely, joining the hundreds of schools and thousands of businesses across Maine that are closed for two weeks or more to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In some cases, parents are being asked to pay for service even during the temporary closures.

Other child care centers around the state are staying open to help parents who still have to work, including health care providers and first responders. In fact, even as schools are closed and the state has closed other gathering places, the state has encouraged them to keep operating.

Those still open include Little Friends Early Learning and Child Care Center in Freeport. While its numbers have dropped from 22 children to about 10, it is trying to continue serving its families as long as possible.

Child care centers are among the handful of types of businesses that Gov. Janet Mills says provide essential services and are exempt from an executive order signed Wednesday that prohibits nonessential, non-work gatherings of more than 10 people.

To help child care providers facing extra pressure maintaining staffing levels as a result of the coronavirus, the Office of Child and Family Services has enacted temporary emergency protocols that allow increased numbers of school-age children for each adult and waive background checks and orientation training requirements for additional staff hired to care for more children.

The Office of Child and Family Services also issued new guidance to all licensed child care providers in the state that includes reinforcing healthy hygiene, intensifying cleaning efforts and requiring sick children to stay at home. That guidance corresponds closely to changes being made in other states and is in accordance with federal guidance, according to Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

“At this time, we support providers remaining open in accordance with these guidelines, particularly those serving parents who are essential to Maine’s response, including first responders, health care providers, public health staff, municipal employees and essential state employees,” Farwell said in a statement. “These parents live in communities throughout Maine and must continue to access child care to perform their critical work.”

Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Maine, which operates St. Elizabeth’s in Portland and St. Louis Child Development Center in Biddeford, said both centers are now closed, but for different reasons. St. Louis closed on Tuesday to its 140 students because of a staff shortage because of sickness and the need of several staff members to self-quarantine for 14 days after traveling.

The director of St. Elizabeth’s had intended to stay open to serve families that needed childcare, but so few students were coming that it made sense to close, Katzel said.

“Some of the parents are choosing to self-quarantine because they have other children home from public school. If they’re home with the older kids, they might as well have the younger ones home,” Katzel said, adding that no decision has been made about when it will reopen.

Jane Purdy, owner of Little Friends Early Learning and Child Care Center in Freeport, has stayed open while the number of children declined to 10, but now thinks she may close as soon as next week.

“The families who are not attending the center are respecting the call for social distancing. Some are choosing not to attend because of compromised health conditions of other household members. Some are scared of being afflicted with the coronavirus,” Purdy said. “I have stressed that I respect all families decisions. And I do. This is a very difficult time for everyone.”

Purdy said her decision to stay open this week centered largely on giving both families and her staff time to plan for Little Friends to close. “I do not take any of this lightly in any way at all,” Purdy said.

While Little Friends is open, Purdy has put in place new expectations for families and new practices at the center. Children who attend are asked to travel only between home and day care and parents drop their children at the door instead of coming inside. After they arrive, children wash their hands and faces immediately, a practice that is repeated every hour.

Teachers have also been seating children farther apart at lunch, dividing up play areas to put space between children and spending more time playing with children outside, Purdy said.

YMCA locations across southern Maine are closed, which means the child care programs held there have also been shut down.

The Bangor Region YMCA has closed its facility except for its child care program. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the program had 165 children per day, but that has dropped to an average of 45 to 50 children, CEO Diane Dickerson wrote in a message to parents.

“This allows us to have small groups of children and far more space to spread out our kids since the Y is closed to all other children except those children,” she said.

Parents are now restricted to just the lobby area drop-off and pickup to reduce the number of people inside classrooms. Children are having their temperature taken three times per day, washing their hands constantly, using hand sanitizer and learning about social distancing, Dickerson wrote.

Some of the child care centers that have closed are requiring parents to continue paying for the service anyway so that staff members can still be paid. And some of those parents, who may now also have to pay for alternative child care, have complained to the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

Attorney General Aaron Frey on Thursday released a statement in response to those complaints and said parents could be legally obligated to pay, at least in some cases. Frey also said that reports of an AG investigation into the industry are “simply not true.”

Whether parents must continue to pay “will depend on the agreements reached between the day care provider and the consumer,” Frey said in a written statement. “If there is a written contract that covers emergency closure, the contract will likely govern. If there is no written contract, or the written contract does not cover emergency closures, there may be an implied contract arising from the pre-existing course of dealing. For example, if in the absence of a specific agreement a consumer pays a day care provider that is closed for a snow day, that pre-existing course of dealing may mean payment would be required during this emergency.”


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