Erika Apathy runs the Betty Eliason Child Care Center. This photo was taken in late 2019, as the center was constructing their new infant wing. The center has been closed since mid-March, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and won’t reopen until they get the go-ahead from the city (KCAW/Photo)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is reopening Alaska, which is mixed news for parents who work. Although many businesses are opening under guidelines for social distancing, that’s proving difficult — and maybe even unrealistic — for Sitka’s childcare centers, who have to comply with generally higher standards

Over the last month and a half, the state has gone from open, to closed, back to partially open. Throughout Governor Dunleavy’s 17 health mandates, some essential businesses have had the option to remain open consistently, with restrictions. 

That includes most daycare providers who have been allowed to be open throughout the pandemic, as long as they could safely do so, according to a memo released by the state in March. But the initial guidelines were strict, and a little unclear. Erika Apathy, of the Betty Eliason Childcare Center said they were practically impossible.

“Before they come in, make sure they don’t have a runny nose, they don’t have a cough, and if you’ve been around children they pretty much always, or very often, have a runny nose or a cough,” she said. “Making sure that there’s only ten people in a room, and at first we were very unsure what exactly that meant. Did that mean only ten children in a  room, or ten children and teachers?”

So Apathy and other childcare centers were conflicted: They wanted to provide childcare for essential service workers, but didn’t think the expectations could be met safely. 

“Those aren’t realistic expectations of working in a childcare center. There’s no way to social distance children,” she said. “How do you open a facility safely when you’re given unrealistic expectations?”

And new guidelines released on April 24 with Gov.Dunleavy’ first phase of reopening the state, remain strict. Children must be screened before entering a facility for symptoms and fever. Groups must be limited to 10 children, and they must be static. That means even staff can’t go between the different groups of children. All staff must wear facemasks, and the state encourages older children to do so as well. And staff must clean all frequently touched surfaces hourly. 

Apathy decided to keep her center closed until they get the all-clear from the city. Sitka’s “Shelter in Place” mandate remains in effect through May 12. 

Marjean Ragsdale directs Ventures, which is a Sitka School District program. It won’t be reopening til at least the end of the school year. She says she’s been trying to keep in touch with her students on her Facebook page. 

“Doing educational videos, reading to them, or doing some education about chickens,” she said. “So the kids are getting some normalcy and realizing that Miss Marjean is safe and we’re all here thinking about them and can’t wait for them to come back.”

As centers figure out how to provide what service they can remotely, they still have to consider how long they can do that. Most childcare centers are small businesses  and are worried that staying closed for too long may not be viable. Lolly Miller at the Sheldon Jackson Childcare Center says navigating that line is a little precarious. 

“Because we have such a thin profit margin, we don’t really have several months worth of reserves to pool from in order to stay open for a month or two,” she said. “So we’re scrambling to figure out where the income can come from in order for our programs to maybe stay closed for one or two months, and then still have reserves to be able to open back up and pay our staff.”

Childcare centers will be receiving some additional assistance from the state. The state’s Child Care Assistance Program typically subsidizes the costs of childcare for lower income families by paying childcare centers a certain amount per child. CCAP is now paying centers for every child they had enrolled on February 1 — for “capacity building.”

How much centers receive is dependent a variety of factors- like tuition rate, age of the children they care for, and whether they’re open or temporarily closed, but all centers are being offered state subsidies to keep staff on the payroll. That funding is available through May. Whether the support will be enough for some centers that were already operating on tight budgets remains to be seen. 

Miller, Apathy, and Ragsdale said they do feel caught between a rock and a hard place, and as the state opens back up, they want to provide services for parents as soon as they can, as safely as they can.  

“I feel for the kids and I feel for the parents, and I know that they need us. But it’s like, you have that fine line,” said Ragsdale. “You have to be safe but you also want to do this service. We got into childcare because we love kids and want to help them and see them grow. I feel like I’m on a standstill, I’m doing the business part of it but I’m not doing my love of it which is working with the kids.”