The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Tamiesha and Ernest Parris, 36 and 38, met on the job six years ago. Both nurses at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, they dated in secret for years. Ernest Parris works in the post-operative department and Tamiesha Parris works in the ICU. She described her husband as laid back, and herself as very type-A.

“We actually probably couldn’t be [more] opposite, but, yin and yang,” she said. 

Their daughter, Presley, is 4.

Presley used to attend Midwood Montessori School in Brooklyn, but it shut down in mid-March, around the time Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered schools closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Presley’s last day at Midwood was March 13.

Ernest, Presley and Tamiesha Parris pose for a family photo at a small gathering in Queens, back when such gatherings were a normal part of life. Ernest and Tamiesha are both nurses in New York City. Presley just turned 4. Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Tamiesha Parris

Over the next week, many child care facilities across the city closed their doors, limiting options for parents in essential jobs who still needed the care.

The Parrises were not aware of potential public options when their daughter’s daycare closed. Amid the sudden upheaval, it was not immediately clear to Presley’s parents where they could find an early child care center she could attend. For more than two weeks, the Parrises took turns watching Presley during the day while maintaining a grueling schedule of staggered night shifts, worried all the while that they might contract the virus that was already raging across the city.

At the time, Ernest Parris was working 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.; Tamiesha Parris worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. They rotated nights so that one parent was always home with Presley. Ernest Parris works about 13 shifts a month; Tamiesha Parris, who was working seven shifts a month pre-coronavirus, started working around 11 shifts. Child care allows them the time to sleep, go grocery shopping and take care of other errands.

Critical Condition

The Students the Pandemic Hit Hardest

The coronavirus pandemic closed schools and launched a national experiment in remote learning that has been chaotic and stressful for millions of American families. But in some households, the shift to homeschool was particularly catastrophic. In this series we profile vulnerable children whose education was already precarious and how the disease has exacerbated gaps in opportunities and resources for communities already on the edge.

Like the Parris family, parents around the country with essential jobs have been scrambling to find child care centers that are still open during the coronavirus pandemic, or are turning to help from family members who are able to stay home with children. States have set up different parameters for operating child care facilities to serve the children of essential workers, each trying to figure out how to best provide for families, protect the safety of children who need care, and avoid increasing the devastation wrought on an already fragile child care industry.

With emergency child care options varying so much across the country, many parents who work in healthcare do not have access to a government-run child care program for essential workers. And, some programs that are up and running now did not exist when the coronavirus first hit, or are not a good fit for every family.

In an April 2-10 survey of more than 5,000 child care providers across the country, almost half of respondents said their child care center was completely closed, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a membership association of early childhood educators, which conducted the survey. An additional 17 percent of respondents said their centers were closed to everyone except the children of essential personnel. Of the respondents whose child care programs remained open, 85 percent reported they were operating at less than half of their enrollment capacity.

Related: Our fragile child care ‘system’ may be about to shatter

In March, the NAEYC released guidance on how states could best provide emergency child care. The group advised closing all child care facilities to slow the pandemic as a first step, then systematically reopening them in a “highly scripted and coordinated way, much like any other disaster relief situation,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, NAEYC’s chief executive officer.

That didn’t happen in most states, many of which allowed or even encouraged child care businesses to stay open in the first weeks of the public school shut downs. Evans Allvin pointed to Massachusetts and Vermont as states whose practices aligned with NAEYC’s recommendations, in part because the states coordinated with preexisting child care centers. NAEYC cautioned states against relaxing licensing rules for child care centers, or setting up provisional child care programs built from scratch, as some states have done.

“There’s a better way to do this,” said Evans Allvin. “It’s incumbent upon governors to use the licensed and regulated system that exists.”

85 percent — proportion of open child care providers who told NAEYC pollsters they were operating at less than half of their enrollment capacity

Policies vary widely from state to state. California closed nearly all of its public schools, but child care centers have been allowed to remain open for the children of essential workers.In Kansas, the state supports the “continuity of operations” for child care centers and has not ordered any closures. In Maryland, the governor enacted an emergency order to expand access to child care during the pandemic and suspended “certain State child care and local regulations.”   

Some large cities took their own measures to provide emergency child care to front line workers. Seattle, one of the U.S. cities hit earliest by coronavirus, launched an Emergency Child Care program for the children of first responders, healthcare professionals, pharmacy workers and grocery workers.

On March 23, New York City opened “Regional Enrichment Centers” where children of front line workers in preschool through 12th grade can participate in activities and remote learning in a classroom setting. A maximum of 12 children are allowed in each room, with at least one adult. The city has also collaborated with community organizations to designate “Emergency Child Care Centers,” which primarily serve children ages 6 weeks to 4 years old and is working with family child care providers who offer services for young children at their homes. As of April 6, all center-based early childhood programs not affiliated with the Department of Education’s emergency child care system or a related essential business, like a hospital, were ordered to close.

Presley Parris, now 4, examines a horseshoe crab on the beach in the summer of 2019. Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Ernest Parris

Ivy Lewis is a fifth-year chief resident in the surgery department at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami; her husband, Richard, is a neurology fellow at the hospital. The couple has two children, Teddy, 2, and Lia, 5 months. Teddy used to attend a child care center near one of the hospitals where Ivy Lewis works. When Miami-Dade County announced school closures in mid-March, Teddy’s child care program shut down. Administrators at the program did not refund March tuition, although they charged only partial tuition in April and May.

Although he was able to work mostly from home, Richard Lewis wasn’t able to do so while looking after an infant and a toddler. The nanny who takes care of Lia looked after Teddy as well. The Lewises paid her a higher rate to help take care of two children instead of one.

Financially, it’s kind of almost a double whammy because we’re paying for school. Plus, for now, we’re also paying for a nanny, times two,” Ivy Lewis said in late March. Some child care centers were still open, but the Lewises felt safer keeping Teddy at home. 

In early June, Ivy Lewis was exposed to a patient who initially tested negative for coronavirus, but became positive over the course of his hospitalization. She tested negative for coronavirus on June 4, but a week later, her husband started to develop body aches and a sore throat. The next day, Lia had a fever, and the day after, Teddy was a little warm and coughed a few times. Richard Lewis got a coronavirus test on June 14 that came back positive the next day. Ivy Lewis got tested again on June 15. She was asymptomatic other than losing her sense of taste and smell, but the test was positive. The hospital where she believes she contracted the virus has had around 28 healthcare workers test positive for coronavirus.  

The family immediately quarantined. Their pediatrician advised against taking the children in for a test, and told the Lewises to assume that the kids had the virus.  

Ivy Lewis and her husband have been cleared to return to work based on their hospital’s policy of whether or not they are still exhibiting symptoms. They are not required to test negative to begin work again.

Teddy Lewis’s school reopened on June 15. However, because of the family’s exposure, the school is requiring that Teddy, Ivy and Richard Lewis all test negative in two different coronavirus tests that are 24 hours apart. Ivy’s own hospital will not retest the family because she has already been cleared to work, so recently she spent an afternoon desperately calling testing centers in the area, already booked days in advance, to see if anyone would test them.

Their nanny tested negative for coronavirus the Thursday before the family got sick. When they told her about Richard Lewis’ diagnosis, she took another test on Monday that came back positive. Luckily she was asymptomatic, and is doing well.

Ivy Lewis said that she feels blessed that everyone in her family only had mild symptoms for coronavirus, but has felt the stigma surrounding the virus.

“I understand, everyone is worried and they want to protect themselves and things like that, but I very much feel like a pariah still,” she said.

Back in New York earlier this spring, the Parrises tried to sign Presley up for a few child care slots at Bright Horizons, a national for-profit chain of child care centers that provides child care as a benefit to employees of large organizations. The chain allows Sloan Kettering employees to use Bright Horizons centers for 20 days each year at a cost of just $25 a day, according to Tamiesha Parris. After the novel coronavirus hit, the hospital announced an extra five days for employees at the discounted rate. The hospital covers the difference between the $25 paid by employees and the usual cost of the Bright Horizons program.

Rides at amusement parks like Coney Island will probably not be a part of Presley Parris’ upcoming summer, as they were in the summer of 2019 (shown here). Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Tamiesha Parris

In the last week in March, Tamiesha Parris signed up for several slots at Bright Horizons, but was told at the last minute on at least four different occasions that the spot she had reserved for Presley was no longer available. Bright Horizons did not return a request for comment.

In the third week of March, Tamiesha Parris got an email from another school — Guidepost Montessori at Museum Mile — announcing it was still open for the children of essential workers. She was on their mailing list because of the family’s search a year earlier for a full-time school. On top of the disruption in their lives caused by the coronavirus, the Parrises had another major change in March: Towards the end of the month, they moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Museum Mile was near their new home.

I was like, oh man, we could really, really utilize this, and it’s right down the street from us,” said Tamiesha Parris.

She initially had some reservations about letting Presley be around other kids, but she was assured by Nina Gardner, the former administrative director at Museum Mile, that the school would cap the number of students in a class at eight, and the number of teachers at two, so that there would be no more than 10 people in any given room.

The Parrises decided to sign up. Presley started at Museum Mile on Monday, March 30. They paid $450 a week for Presley to go to her new school three days a week. The family had already paid the year’s tuition, $20,000, for Presley’s former school in Brooklyn. The hospital’s human resource department told the Parrises that they were eligible for partial reimbursement of their fees.

Despite the extra hours Tamiesha Parris took on, life smoothed out for the Parrises. The risk that Presley — and therefore the rest of the family — might contract the virus, however, was slightly elevated by the fact that Presley was spending three days a week around other kids. And how do you socially distance a 4-year-old?

The new school had its own guidelines to try and keep students safe.

To start, the drop off process changed. Parents at Guidepost Montessori bring their kids to the front door and wait outside while a staff member, wearing a mask and gloves, takes the child’s temperature. If it’s over 100 degrees, the child is not allowed to come into the building. Staff temperatures are taken as well. Children were previously involved in food prep, but that stopped. The bedding on cots for nap time is washed every day. Another big change is that kids take a daily walk; they no longer play in the Central Park playground as they used to.

A student in Guidepost Montessori’s Emergency Care for Essential Workers program at their Museum Mile center is exploring the world through Montessori Puzzle Maps. Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Guidepost Montessori

“As children, they’ll listen to you because you’re an adult, but they feel sad,” said Gardner in April. “You visibly see them sad when they can’t do something that they’re normally used to doing.”

In mid-April, the school was serving seven children, age 2-7, in person, though not all were attending on the same days. Every single one was the child of front-line healthcare workers. In early May, they had 16 students enrolled for in-person education. And the school was providing virtual learning for around 23 students, ages 3 through 10.

Presley Parris went up to hug Gardner on her first day, the former school director remembered.

“Her mom was very much like, ‘Presley, remember what we talked about? We talked about giving our friends their space,’” said Gardner.

Related: ‘A drastic experiment in progress’: How will coronavirus change our kids?

Like many other industries right now, child care in the U.S. is in strange and frightening waters. Many child care businesses risk long-term closure, as the industry is primarily made up of small centers and home-based providers that operate on thin margins. As a result of the widespread stay-at-home orders, many child care providers are dealing with financial losses and the likelihood that many will suffer a long-term hit to enrollment. Many argue that direct government funding is needed to prop up child care businesses and get America back to work.

Chad Dunkley, the CEO of New Horizon Academy, a Minnesota-based, family-owned early childhood organization, said direct aid is crucial. He runs 77 schools in Minnesota, and 88 total including schools in Iowa, Colorado and Idaho.

“The reality is Covid-19 will be with us for a long time, and providers will be unlikely to reach their pre-Covid capacity levels any time soon.”

Chad Dunkley, CEO of New Horizon Academy, a network of child care centers

“In a matter of one week, we went from nearly 11,000 children a day in our schools to about 3,500,” he said in late March. The majority of the kids who remained were the children of doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers. On one particularly dark day, the organization was forced to lay off around 50 percent of its teachers temporarily. Since then, the company has had to eliminate positions at some of their schools because of dramatically reduced enrollment.

New Horizon has extended benefits to employees who were laid off or put on leave through July 31. Employees who were eliminated had benefits through the end of the month that they were terminated.  New Horizon had enough funds in reserve to cover the cost of the benefits for a while. It has received grants from the state of Minnesota, Iowa and Idaho, primarily through the congressional CARES Act, Dunkley said. But this funding has nearly run out. 

Like Guidepost Montessori in New York, New Horizon has had to make changes to reduce the risk of contagion. Dunkley said parents are no longer allowed to enter the schools. Families are greeted in the parking lot for health screenings, and children are then brought into classrooms.

A New York City child in Guidepost Montessori’s Emergency Care for Essential Workers’ program has fun with water colors. Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Guidepost Montessori

On March 30, Dunkley’s schools had added 223 new children across several states — nearly all of whom came from families of essential workers.

“It shocked us all because we didn’t think people would be adding at a time like this,” he said.

As of June 26, New Horizon was serving around 4,700 children a day, approximately 45 percent of its pre-coronavirus attendance. It has kept 86 out of 88 schools open, with the two other locations on corporate campuses scheduled to reopen in July.

CARES funding was critical for New Horizon Academy and other child care providers.

“The reality is Covid-19 will be with us for a long time, and providers will be unlikely to reach their pre-Covid capacity levels any time soon,” said Dunkley. “We have our fingers crossed that Congress will pass substantial relief and stabilization funds for child care with the next stimulus package.”

Related: Her child care center was already on the brink — then coronavirus struck

In New York earlier this spring, the Parrises worried about what they would do if one or both of them got sick. If that happened, their plan was to send Presley to Ernest Parris’ sister’s house in Brooklyn. Towards the end of June, Tamiesha Parris said she hadn’t cared for a coronavirus patient in at least a week. But the pandemic and its many consequences stretches on. 

Presley Parris attended Guidepost Montessori Museum Mile through May, but a combination of cost and curriculum drove the Parrises to look for other options. Tamiesha Parris applied for a spot at a Regional Enrichment Center online. While she was waiting to hear back, she saw a flyer for a center in her neighborhood, and went inside. The center accepted Presley the very next day. 

A lot of healthcare workers that Tamiesha Parris knows sent their kids away rather than risk exposing them to the coronavirus. Others who were provided with temporary housing away from their homes so that they didn’t  run the risk of exposing their families to the contagion. Many have had to take weeks off of work because they didn’t have child care options. 

Presley is now going to the pre-K Center full time, and is happy there. 

“It’s been our savior,” said Tamiesha. “Even though we got in there late, I am just over the moon happy that we were able to do so.”

This story about emergency child care was produced as part of the series Critical Condition: The Students the Pandemic Hit Hardest, reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *