Stephanie Fernández’s Aurora child care center is normally bustling with kids from about 45 families, but on Monday, only six showed up.

The state asked centers like Fernández’s to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic, but money isn’t coming in, she can’t find cleaning supplies and her diabetes puts her at a higher risk of contracting the respiratory illness COVID-19.

“Everyone is being told they need to stay home, but we’re being told we need to stay open,” said Fernández, who spoke to The Denver Post on the condition that her child care center not be identified.

“I haven’t been able to find hand soap. I haven’t been able to find Clorox. I haven’t been able to find paper towels. I hardly have any families showing up. It’s hard to be in this environment and not have the support and be told we can’t shut down.”

State leaders have urged child care centers across Colorado to remain open for the kids of essential workers — doctors, nurses, first responders — during the pandemic. Meanwhile, child care providers are wondering whether they can do their duty and still pay the bills.

The families who usually keep them afloat are keeping their kids home, instead, amid now-expanding shelter-in-place orders and public health officials’ pleas to stay home and help slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Many providers — worried about their finances, personal health and the health of the families they support — are left frustrated and confused.

“What are we supposed to be doing?” said Tonie Rutledge, who runs Tonie’s Precious Cargo Childcare and Preschool out of her Aurora home. “Are we supposed to stay open? How do we stay open when we have no financial security?”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Photographed through the window, Natasha Patton plays with her solo charge 16-month-old Colton Carroll at her home child care facility in Aurora on March 24, 2020. Natasha and her mother Tonie Rutledge run Tonie’s Precious Cargo Childcare and Preschool. The daycare is currently caring for only one child, Colton Carroll, who is the son of an essential health care worker.

On Friday, the Colorado Office of Early Childhood in the state’s Department of Human Services issued updated guidance to child care providers in the state that required facilities to follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to prevent the spread of the virus.

Gov. Jared Polis also called on early childhood providers, advocacy organizations and school districts to partner with the state to create emergency child care for essential workers. Interested parents and providers can visit for more information about signing up.

As an example of the conflicting information that child care providers have been trying to parse, the state’s Department of Human Services clarified Tuesday that providers should keep the number of children in their care to 10 to align with the governor’s executive order limiting gathering sizes. Guidance issued days before had said providers didn’t have to follow this rule, but DHS officials acknowledged that things had been moving fast and their messaging would be updated.

The Office Of Early Childhood’s Friday communication reminded readers about Polis’s executive order saying if a kid, caretaker or staff member in their facility is confirmed to have COVID-19, the center must close for at least 72 hours and conduct a thorough cleaning.

On Monday, one of Fernández’s teachers called in sick. Trying to follow the governor’s order, Fernández asked the teacher to go to a doctor to see if she tested positive for COVID-19 to determine whether the center needed to close.

“She called back and said the doctor was refusing to test her,” Fernández said. “We called the Tri-County Health Department, and they said to tell her to just stay home for seven days. It’s just a lot of confusion and contradicting information.”

Part of the fear around the sustainability of child care facilities comes from the way they’re funded, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at advocacy organization Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“This is an incredibly fragile sector from an economic standpoint,” Jaeger said.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Natasha Patton, takes a walk with her solo charge 16-month-old Colton Carroll in front of her home child care facility in Aurora on March 24, 2020.

Roughly 72 cents of every dollar funding Colorado child care comes from a private source like tuition or parent fees, Jaeger said. When parents are keeping their kids home, the child care centers are often short-changed.

The largest public subsidy program in Colorado making up much of the remaining 28 cents of each dollar is the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, based on child attendance. Unlike K-12 schools, if a child doesn’t show up, the public funding doesn’t pay out.

“If you are a provider that accepts CCCAP, we recognize the impact of this pandemic is particularly difficult for you, your staff and the families you serve,” the state health department said in its Sunday message to child care providers. “The governor has approved additional funding for the department to support counties that adopt policies to continue to pay providers for absences or closures as a result of COVID-19.”

On Tuesday, Rutledge only had one baby boy in her care — the son of a health care worker. Rutledge said she has been cleaning non-stop, changing her clothing if a child sneezes on her and making sure all the hands in her household are thoroughly scrubbed.

Rutledge has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, putting her at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“We need more clarity,” Rutledge said. “We need to know exactly what is expected from us. I have been fielding calls from other child care providers all day not knowing what to do. We need help with our mental health. We have to protect our kids. We have to protect our families. Right now, it’s hard, but I remind myself that I am grateful for all the things I have.”
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