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Daycare Only For Essential Workers Amid Pandemic, But Some Say Local Enforcement Is Lax

Children play at the Magic Hour Preschool in Mira Mesa, Jan. 26, 2015.
Magic Hour Preschool
Children play at the Magic Hour Preschool in Mira Mesa, Jan. 26, 2015.

As with many parents of young children, Julia Najera and Shawn Starr have found themselves without daycare for their 4-year-old son in the midst of the pandemic.

The couple had thought they would be protected because Starr is a nurse, and therefore considered an "essential worker." But, as it turned out, their daycare provider turned their son away because of Starr’s profession.

Daycare Only For Essential Workers Amid Pandemic, But Some Say Local Enforcement Is Lax
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

"Once they found out that I'd be taking care of COVID-positive patients at the hospital, as most nurses do right now, they asked us to keep our son home the entire month of April," Starr said of the provider, which the couple did not want to name publicly.


RELATED: While Schools Close, Some Daycare Providers Are Staying Open … For Now

This isn't how it's supposed to work. San Diego County in its stay-at-home order allows for daycares to only stay open to care for children of essential workers — no one else.

Julia Najera attempts to work from home with her son in her lap in this undated photo.
Julia Najera
Julia Najera attempts to work from home with her son in her lap in this undated photo.

Making matters worse, according to the couple, their daycare is still open for nonessential workers.

"The only reason they were allowed to stay open was to provide care to essential workers," Starr said. "And yet they discriminated against probably one of the only essential workers that were still using their services by staying open for all the other kids. They were doing the exact opposite of what they were supposed to be doing."

Other daycare providers contacted by KPBS back up the couple’s claim. They say the county is not enforcing the emergency order when it comes to who can be using daycare.


Holly Weber, who owns and runs Magic Hours Preschool in Mira Mesa, said she is following the order — children of nonessential workers are no longer allowed at her daycare. But, she said, no one is checking up on her.

"They're not requiring us to regulate or verify in any way what the parents do for a living," she said. "We just know our families and what they do for a living."

A spokeswoman for San Diego County said enforcement of daycare rules should be handled by law enforcement, not county officials.

The dilemma facing daycare providers is clear: essential workers like doctors, nurses, police officers and grocery store clerks need someone to care for their young kids. A recent survey by Yale University found that countywide there are 12,000 hospital workers with young children, and more than 1,000 are single parents.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order allowing the state to use $100 million both to help essential workers pay for child care and to help child care centers buy cleaning and other supplies.

Yet, even with precautions, the daycare providers that serve these families could be hotbeds for spreading the coronavirus.

"Little kids are wonderful vectors for infectious disease," said Dr. Matilda Remba, a pediatrician with Scripps Health. "They always have their hands in their mouth, and are touching things."

Remba recommended keeping children home and out of daycares if at all possible.

Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Rady Children's Hospital, says it is all but impossible for young children to obey even the most basic hygiene and social distancing rules designed to stem the pandemic.

"It's hard to control young children and keep them spaced apart, it's impractical to try to make them wear masks, it's hard to teach them and get them to wash hands," he said. "All the things that are things done to control infection are challenging."

The large majority of children aren't getting sick from COVID-19, but they can still spread the disease, Sawyer said.

VIDEO: Daycare Only For Essential Workers Amid Pandemic, But Some Say Local Enforcement Is Lax

"Some people have no symptoms at a time when they're contagious, and children even more so, so you can have the best of intentions and be planning not to send your kids when they're sick, but by the time they're sick it's already too late," he said. "Then other children have the potential to get sick, and then they go home, and that cascades the illness from family member to family member."

Ideally, each family of an essential worker would have individual childcare at home, Sawyer said, but he knows that's not an option.

For daycares that have remained open, there are also extreme financial challenges.

Weber at Magic Hours said she is down to 15 children from more than 50 before the coronavirus pandemic. It's very difficult to keep going right now, but it's important to her.

"It's what we do," she said. "We are a family that takes care of families, we take care of those children because their parents need us to help them with that. It would be much more difficult to close the doors and discontinue the only option parents may have."

While she said she worries some for the health of teachers at the school, Magic Hours is taking extra precautions. They include asking parents who are working with the public to not drop off or pick up their children, having teachers wear masks and gloves while serving food, ensuring children wash hands frequently and cleaning and disinfecting the school every day.

One essential worker whose two-year-old daughter is still in daycare is San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate. He also has a four-week-old son.

"My wife's watching our son while I do these calls or last week we had a nine hours council meeting," he said. "Luckily our daycare, which is an in-home daycare, is still open."

Cate knows how important child care is, so he's working to help essential workers find care for their kids, and is asking San Diego County to provide free daycare for some essential workers.

"We want their mindset to be on fighting the pandemic and treating patients and not worrying about child care and who will take care of their kids, or maybe they can't go to work because they have to take care of their kids," he said.

The child care industry has long been in crisis, and COVID-19 only made things worse. Now affordable, quality care is even more challenging to find, and staff are not paid enough to stay in the field. This series spotlights people each struggling with their own childcare issues, and the providers struggling to get by.