A 2-year-old wanders up to the doors of a day care and gazes up at the adult holding the thermometer, knowing entrance is not permitted until the beep confirms there is no fever.

That child cannot grasp on the pandemic unfolding around him, but after nearly five months of the same routine, it has become learned behavior and the entrance fee for day care admittance.

Children have little use or understanding of face masks or social distancing, which places the burden on day care workers to provide their safety. Day care workers, in some ways, are used to that burden, though. Parents have already entrusted them with the safety of their precious child, but now hygiene, cleaning and transparency is amplified by COVID-19.

“I don’t want the sick kids to come to me and I don’t want to expose anybody to any more sickness than I have to,” said Kayla Lux, owner of Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell. “If I expect (parents) to be 100 percent honest with me, I need to show them that same courtesy. If they know we have a case of strep throat, they can send their children if they want and if they don’t, they can wait. They can know things are going around, so they can be in tune to their (kids’) symptoms.”

When the pandemic hit, some day care facilities bore the brunt, not because of shutdowns, but because many parents now working from home no longer needed their services. Day cares were deemed an essential service, which allowed facilities like Bright Beginnings Learning Center in Platte to receive grants to help pay all 14 workers, regardless of whether they opted to stay home.

Still, Bright Beginnings saw a drop from its 42-child capacity to 15 at the lowest point of the pandemic. Meanwhile, EmBe Mitchell is currently operating at 48 percent capacity after having 140 kids prior to the onset of the pandemic.

The South Dakota Division of Child Care Services provides a grant to help compensate for enrollment reduction, while the Small Business Association has provided a variety of loans at a rate of 2.7 percent, along with the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“Working with other partners that do what we do in the region, we are all experiencing the same kind of numbers because parents have job loss or they’re still working from home,” said Angie Bakke, EmBe Chief Care Director. “So, there’s some hard choices that parents are facing. We try to do a lot with scholarships as much as we can and we’ve found money to support those scholarships from different community foundations across the state.”

When Gov. Kristi Noem announced her reopening plan on April 28, day care centers began to regain kids, and the reopening of schools in the coming weeks will only add to the numbers at each facility.

Marci Stults holds Elliana Colomb while Waylon Dise, front, and David Jones rest in rockers on Thursday at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Marci Stults holds Elliana Colomb while Waylon Dise, front, and David Jones rest in rockers on Thursday at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

But as COVID-19 cases with kids begin to rise, communication between day care teachers and parents becomes ever more important. The South Dakota Department of Health released child-specific statistics, noting 322 cases among children younger than 9 years old, with 62 percent showing symptoms.

There have been no reports of outbreaks in day cares in South Dakota, but nearly 1,000 cases have been reported in California and more than 1,500 in Texas, giving cause for precautions.

“I post everything on Facebook and we have everything that we do every day,” said Lori Chambers, director of Bright Beginnings. “Parents see those things daily and I post pictures of each classroom every single day. They see the process and what kids do. We wash hands multiple times a day. You’re just not going to get kids to stay 6 feet apart in day care. It’s not humanly possible.”

Installing precautionary measures

Increased hand washing and frequent temperature checks have become normal practice at day cares, but spread of illnesses are still inevitable when children are involved in mass.

Little Learners, which is planning to move into a new building in 2021, has a capacity of 60 kids and is currently operating with 50, ages four weeks to kindergarten. In an added safety measure, only workers and kids are permitted inside the building as kids are escorted from vehicles to the building and vice versa each day.

Temperatures of more than 104 degrees constitutes staying home for 48 hours, while any current illness in a household requires until every member of a family is symptom-free for 48 hours. So, if two family members are enrolled and one gets sick, both must stay home.

“That seems to help 90 to 95 percent of our illnesses by keeping out siblings,” Lux said. “We’ve always had sickness coming through because we’re bigger, but it’s eliminated a lot of illness by making everyone stay out. We never used to make siblings stay out.”

Taysha Wantoch blows bubbles for Silus Garcia, from left, Tayvalin Wantoch, Raylee Mckinney, Eden Endfield and Bell Swank while playing on Thursday afternoon at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Taysha Wantoch blows bubbles for Silus Garcia, from left, Tayvalin Wantoch, Raylee Mckinney, Eden Endfield and Bell Swank while playing on Thursday afternoon at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Day care facilities have also been divided on mandates with face masks, as Little Learners and Bright Beginnings have not required workers to wear masks, both citing fears from children over not being able to see faces. Chambers also noted that workers must use sign language with some of the children, although a worker can wear a mask if desired.

EmBe, which is headquartered in Sioux Falls and disassociated from the YWCA five years ago to form its own 501c3 company, does not require masks for its preschoolers, save for traveling on buses for field trips. But since after school care and summer care is on Mitchell School District property, masks have been enforced since July 14.

Bakke said two families have opted to remove children over the mask mandate, but there has been little issue otherwise for the company. As time progresses, she believes that many of the new safety measures will become learned behavior for children.

“Our most important role in child care is that we provide that sense of normalcy and routine,” Bakke said. “We want kids to feel safe, but we want them to be with their friends and have fun in the safest manner possible.”

While Bright Beginnings has had no concerns from its workers in regards to risks of contracting COVID-19. Chambers says that given that most work for low wages -- day care workers have a median wage of $9.81 per hour, according to Career Trend -- and they continue to come to work because they are passionate about caring for children.

“You have to literally love what you do to work this job,” Chambers said. “It’s not a great paying job and there’s not a lot of benefits, but you have to love what you do and they love the kids. That’s why they come to work every day.”