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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

B-N Parents May Return To Work With Fewer Child Care Options

Kid with hand sanitizer
Alvaro Barrientos
There are more than 21,000 children age 9 and under living in McLean County.

If all goes as planned, more and more parents in Bloomington-Normal will be going back into work in June and July after months of being furloughed or working from home.

Soon they’ll be asking the same question they did when this all started: What am I gonna do with my kids?

Bloomington-Normal’s working parents will have options — but fewer of them, and they will look different. That will add another layer of stress as people return to their workplaces after months away.

Little Jewels Learning Center has three locations in Bloomington-Normal, serving around 350 families. It’s been closed since March 30 and is now planning to reopen June 1, presuming McLean County moves into Phase 3 (Recovery) of the governor’s Restore Illinois plan by then. Phase 3 allows for “limited child care and summer programs with Illinois Department of Public Health-approved safety guidance.” Other child care options would reopen in Phase 4.

"It's interesting how something like this challenges you to start trusting in ways you didn't know were even possible before."

There are more than 21,000 children age 9 and under living in McLean County.

“These parents need somewhere to take their children so they can go back to work,” said Mary Beth Lowery, director of operations at Little Jewels. “We’re a really important part of that reopening.”

When it does reopen, things will look different at Little Jewels. Classes will likely be smaller. Its summer school-age program will take fewer field trips. Teachers will be wearing masks. Fewer people will be allowed into its buildings.

“Things change to day to day. It’s hard to keep up with everything,” Lowery said.

The Bloomington-Normal YMCA has been offering emergency child care for essential workers’ families since mid-March, serving about 20 kids every day, said Director of Youth Development Sarah Tunall. They do daily temperature checks. The staff wear masks. They clean everything.

“They’ve done absolutely fantastic. The parents have been really supportive,” Tunall said. “The kids are growing, which is a beautiful thing in a situation where a lot of kids are struggling.”

Normally, the YMCA would open its summer day camps as soon as school gets out. It typically has 200 kids at Northpoint Elementary School, and another 75 at O’Neil Park.

The YMCA hopes to be able to expand its emergency child care program to more families by June 1, then offer full summer day camps starting July 1. But one challenge is staying under the 50-person maximum capacity spelled out in Phase 4 of the governor’s plan, which could be in place in July.

Tunall said they’re trying to find additional locations so they can split up their 275 or so kids, to stay under the 50-person threshold.

“We’ve been having great conversations with some community partners. There are a lot of people who are nervous, which makes sense. So (it’s unknown) what spaces we are going to have access to,” Tunall said. “And when can we start? That’s a big one."

The YMCA also expects to have to split up grades, probably with children grades K-4 in one place and grades 5-9 at another, Tunall said.

“So if you’re a family that has to drop off here and here, it’s a little challenging,” she said.

Summer Camps

Some options just won’t exist. Illinois State University, for example, has canceled all its summer camps, conferences, and events through July 31, including band and athletics camps.

YWCA McLean County's Young Wonders program will still have summer camp starting June 1, with spots for at least 100 kids. Registration is now open.

Other programs are still a maybe. The Bloomington Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts Department is still evaluating its options for summer day camp at Holiday Park that served 100 campers last year, said city spokesperson Nora Dukowitz.

In Normal, its Parks and Rec summer day camps served about 240 kids last year, split between Anderson, Fairview, and Maxwell parks. Limited registration for all summer programs with the Town of Normal will continue, but program sizes and schedules are subject to change according to the state guidelines for reopening, the Town of Normal said Friday.

“We have been discussing all options and trying to predict what we can and cannot do. It has been very difficult to have any certainty,” said Normal Parks and Rec Director Doug Damery.

The Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal will remain closed for general admission through July, but limited camp programs will be available.

After several weeks closed, Katie’s Kids Learning Center reopened Monday to begin offering emergency child care for essential workers. (Like the YMCA, Katie’s Kids sought and received permission from the state.) They’re serving around 50 families, split between two locations, said owner Katie Stelle-Mardis.

When McLean County enters Phase 3, Stelle-Mardis said she’d like to have the option of using all eight of her classrooms, each with up to 10 children, to serve more families. She said they can do that safely without any intermingling between classrooms.

“These kids have been out of school for six weeks. They’ve been off their routine and normalcy. And so especially school-age kids — I don’t know what our community is gonna do with summer programs,” Stelle-Mardis said. “But small programs like ours, I would think, would be pretty desirable.”

Stelle-Mardis said it’s hard to trust others at a time like this, even if that’s what’s required. We have to trust the doctors. We have to trust that a vaccine will become available. Business owners have to trust the government will help them. And parents have to trust that child care centers can safely care for their kids.

“It’s interesting how something like this challenges you to start trusting in ways you didn’t know were even possible before,” she said.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

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