KALKASKA — When Kristin Andrews opened her Blue Fish Early Learning Center in Sept. 2019 it was licensed for 48 children from birth to 12 years old.
Those spots were soon snapped up and, in just a few months, the Kalkaska center grew to 87 spots.
That was before the state’s mid-March closure of schools, restaurants, stores and more, with child care centers only allowed to provide services for children of people considered to be essential workers. The number of kids attending Blue Fish dropped so significantly Andrews thought she was going to have to shut down.
“March was a pretty scary month,” Andrews said. “April was too, financially.”
The latest order issued Sunday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services keeps day cares open, but closes schools, leaving some parents scrambling.
“They’re very desperate when the public schools close,” said Anna Fryer, licensee of Teddy Bear Daycare and Preschool on 14th Street, which has been able to provide a few spots.
Other parents are temporarily pulling their children out of day care because they are not working, are working from home or have older children who are pulling babysitting duties, Fryer said.
Still others are keeping their kids home out of fear caused by the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the northern Michigan region.
Chelsea Davis has two boys aged 4 and 6 in the Blue Fish preschool program. An activities assistant at the Eden Center long-term care facility, Davis cannot work from home. She said both staff and kids at Blue Fish wear masks and follow guidelines set out by the MDHHS.
“I feel confident that staff will do the right thing and that they are safe there,” Davis said.
The new order took effect Wednesday and will be in place for three weeks. In addition to K-12 schools and colleges, casinos, movie theaters, group exercise classes and more are closed, with restaurants and bars restricted from serving indoors.
The restrictions follow two weeks of steep rises in COVID-19 positive test results, with the seven-day average of positive test results in Michigan spiking from fewer than 2,000 to more than 6,000 between late October and last week.
Teddy Bear is licensed for 70 children aged infant to 7 years old at its 14th Street location. Two other sites on Bass Lake and Long Lake roads are licensed for another 71 children. All are at about 90 percent capacity, Fryer said.
Angel Care Preschool & Child Care on Hastings Street has a few openings, but can’t take any more kids than the 34 it now has, said Karin Cooney, executive director.
“We don’t have enough staff, unfortunately,” Cooney said. “The real problem is manpower. It’s a scary thing to be on the front lines right now. There’s no social distancing in child care.”
As of Wednesday, the center had lost six children who are staying home during the three-week shutdown.
Angel Care closed for two months during the first shutdown when about 75 percent of kids stayed home, making it impossible to operate, Cooney said.
The business took advantage of grants and loans available through the federal CARES Act stimulus package, including the Paycheck Protection Program loan. All her employees came back to work when called, Cooney said, despite the extra $600 they were getting in unemployment benefits.
The worker shortage now is because of attrition and because her employees are finding jobs with better pay and benefits elsewhere, Cooney said. Nobody is applying for open positions because of COVID, she said.
Andrews has a degree in early childhood education and worked in the field for about 12 years before deciding to open Blue Fish, which has 14 employees.
She also received CARES Act grants and loans that allowed her to keep the business open, pay her employees and offer her parents some financial relief on their child care bills during the shutdown.
During the first shutdown she got referrals from home providers who had to close, and when the executive order was lifted her spots filled up so that Blue Fish now has a full house and waiting lists.
Andrews said she doesn’t think this latest shutdown will be as much of a financial burden.
“However, I’m saying that with the intent that it is only lasting three weeks,” she said.