EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — In his daily press briefing on Sunday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker addressed the issue of available childcare for essential workers in Illinois who do not have the option of staying home from work.
Pritzker announced that, as of April 1, all essential workers in the state would be eligible for financial assistance with emergency childcare. He also applauded the nearly 1,500 childcare centers and 500 at-home care operations that opened as emergency care providers to serve essential workers. The governor specifically named Tina Branch-Williams, who runs an at-home operation in East St. Louis.
Branch-Williams has been operating Rosie's Kidz Christian Home Daycare since 2013. Because she operates out of her home, she is able to care for eight children at a time. She is open from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week and sees about 24 children each day.
"It's not just a job," Branch-Williams said. "It's my passion, and it's also my ministry. Prior to becoming a provider, I had to utilize childcare, and I was a single mother too at one point. I want to offer things that I would have needed."
As COVID-19 concerns and regulations continued to grow and roll out, Branch-Williams said she never considered ending her services.
"I said I would wain until they closed us down, if they were going to close us down," Branch-Williams said.
She said she stopped caring for children on March 20, but reopened as an emergency center three days later.
“We wanted to see what it looked like because they said that we could open but there were no guidelines," Branch-Williams said.
She said keeping her space sanitized during the pandemic is no different than the standards she normally meets as a childcare provider. The biggest difference for her is having to limit the number of children she can accept.
"It broke my heart," Branch-Williams said. “For me, it was like, how do you pick or how do you choose? I have one that delivers medical equipment, so he drives,” Branch-Williams said. “I have some that work in pharmacy, I have one that is a phlebotomist, I have some that work in the fast food industry and then some who work in grocery stores. All my parents are essential workers.”
Branch-Williams said she is in constant communication with all of her parents, passing on the constantly-changing information coming from local, state and federal agencies. She selected the families, particularly single parents, who she said she knew did not have any other options for childcare.
As for social distancing, Branch-Williams said it's easier to do with six children, but she said the children don't understand it.
"They just come and they're so happy to see me, and I'm happy to see them," Branch-Williams said. "I just keep them busy, doing activities so they're interactive. I keep them distanced without them knowing they're distanced."
Meanwhile, Sherry Davidson, spokesperson for Kim's Kids, said the center temporarily suspended its operations a week ago.
Davidson said the location in East St. Louis is not taking any children, while the center in St. Louis is operating on a case-by-case basis.
“We may refer them to some of our sister centers depending upon how many kids they have and if it’s an emergency," Davidson said. "We’re networking with another center as well.”
Because Kim's Kids is a center, as opposed to an at-home operation, it is allowed to operate as long as there are fewer than 50 children and they are separated in different rooms in line with CDC restrictions. Weeks ago, 5 On Your Side spoke with parents who enroll their children at Kim's Kids in St. Louis, and they said they work in healthcare and desperately need the facility.
Davidson said the center is working to serve those parents while also being extremely cautious.
“We’re only dealing with our population, who we already have medical information on," Davidson said.
Davidson also said Kim's Kids operates out of "large" facilities, making it easy to social distance, and she said center leadership hopes to re-open later this month.
"We're monitoring the information coming out of Missouri and Illinois," Davidson said.
While there have been no COVID-19 symptoms or cases at the center, Davidson said the decision to close was made to give staff time to implement extra sanitation and practices to keep it that way. She said they will re-open when they feel comfortable with the guidelines and their ability to keep all children and staff protected.
Davidson said she believes Illinois is more organized when it comes to addressing childcare facilities than Missouri is, so she said it is likely the East St. Louis will be able to re-open before the St. Louis center. However, she said they are waiting for more specific guidelines, referencing the same vague direction Branch-Williams referred to.
As they work to re-open the center, Davidson said they are hyper-aware that the need is great.
"We're getting hundreds of calls all the time," Davidson said.
She said safety and health are the top priorities for Kim's Kids, and they will be the determining factor for a full re-open.
You can read more about Missouri's instructions for childcare facilities here.
Pritzker encouraged childcare providers to reopen as emergency care providers and for essential workers in Illinois to apply for financial assistance for their childcare here.