A handful of toddlers played outside during a break in Friday’s drizzle at Aunty’s Childcare Center in Duluth as owner April Westman watched.

Over the last few weeks, the number of children in the toddler class at Aunty’s has dropped from 21 to seven and other age levels have seen even more dramatic declines. Westman can have up to 65 children and was full as of March 1 with about 100 families on a waiting list.

Less than a month ago, parents and providers around the region were concerned about a shortage of available child care spots. As the coronavirus pandemic has ground the economy to a halt, providers from Carlton County to the North Shore have had to deal with plummeting attendance, decreased revenue and strict screening protocols for children still attending.

Lead teacher Morgan Pergman plays with Hendrix and Jackson Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Lead teacher Morgan Pergman plays with Hendrix and Jackson Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“Something I think people don’t understand is that before the pandemic, there were not enough child care spaces to go around and now there aren’t enough kids,” Westman said. “There will be even fewer providers afterward if we aren’t careful. We have to think long-term — this is a marathon.”

Kickstart Preschool in Two Harbors had 55 children attend regularly, from infants to pre-K, but now has just 14 students and has gone from 15 employees to three, including owner Deb Archer.

“Part of that, too, is that we have a lot of staff whose children won’t be at school,” Archer said. “So they need to be at home and we had staff with some health concerns who could not work either.”

Robyn’s Nest Daycare in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood has dropped from seven kids regularly attending to just one child one day per week. Owner Robyn Madole said her business should be able to survive, but other in-home providers might not be so fortunate.

“My husband works, and he is still working and bringing in a check, so this is not our sole income in our family, which is different from a lot of other in-home day cares,” Madole said. “It does hurt that I’m not getting paid, but my kids will still get fed.”

Child care providers in Wrenshall, Cloquet and Superior all have seen dramatic shifts in attendance since the pandemic began to emerge in the U.S.

Astoria a child in the toddler class looks out the window of a playhouse while outside Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Astoria a child in the toddler class looks out the window of a playhouse while outside Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Staying open for essential workers

Westman was forced to reduce staff hours, but it’s vital that Aunty’s stays open throughout the crisis, she said.

“We had 28 kids today, and every single one of their parents isn’t just an essential worker but a critical worker,” Westman said. “We recruit families directly from the hospitals themselves, and our nurses always send us more people before our openings are even advertised. If we were to close, we would be leaving those families without care, and they need us.”

Like other providers, Heather Schmitz of Wrenshall is also down to providing care for essential workers at her in-home day care, but she said taking care of children is about more than money to her.

“It will definitely be a struggle,” Schmitz said. “We don’t really make a lot of money — it’s a passion and a love for children, and your payment is in the future when you see those kiddos go off and be successful.”

Kids from the toddler class play outside Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. Before the onset of the pandemic the class contained 21 children but is now down to 7 kids. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Kids from the toddler class play outside Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. Before the onset of the pandemic the class contained 21 children but is now down to 7 kids. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Measures to prevent illness

All of the providers contacted by the News Tribune said they have made changes to how children arrive. Parents are no longer allowed past the entryways, and children are being screened for fevers with temperature checks and asked about symptoms. In addition, all centers have increased cleaning and are sanitizing toys and surfaces as much as possible.

Madole said she no longer allows kids to bring their own toys, and their blankets are washed daily. Doorknobs, mailboxes and other things in Madole’s home are wiped down with sanitizer any time someone leaves the house.

Child care centers are also trying to limit the number of students in one classroom to 10 or less to prevent exposure for kids and the people caring for them, but that’s not always easy.

“Two-year-olds don’t really understand social distancing,” said Darla Pappas, director of Li'l Lumberjacks Learning Center in Cloquet. “They need to be hugged and loved either way, and it does put us at risk, but we are here to do it.”

Li'l Lumberjacks has an advantage over many centers. It is part of the Cloquet Public Schools Community Education program and is housed in Cloquet High School. Since classrooms are not being used by students, the day care program has been able to use the extra space.

Many of the centers have lost staff because of health concerns or vulnerable family members, but some need to continue working despite risk factors. Debbie Dalpiaz, the director at New Horizons Children’s Center in Superior, continues to work even though she has a child at home with stage four renal failure.

“I need to work because unemployment won’t pay me enough, and if I had to make the decision, of course I would be with my son,” Dalpiaz said. “There are some staff with kids with immune issues, but they have to make their own decisions based on what they need to do for their families.”

Hendrix a child in the toddler class plays in a toy car outside Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Hendrix a child in the toddler class plays in a toy car outside Friday at Aunty's Childcare Center in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Supply shortages

All of the providers have experienced problems getting enough supplies for their kids. Many parents are chipping in with donations of diapers, wipes and other items, but Westman said there is still a problem because stores won’t lift purchase limits for day care providers.

“They don’t care if I show my license and that I have 65 kids to feed,” Westman said. “The governor did issue an executive order that stores are supposed to lift their limits when it comes to day cares, and I bring a printout of it with me, but the stores are ignoring that.”

The providers said they were all doing the best they can. Many are applying for grants, small business loans or seeking other government support to weather the storm.

They are all looking forward to when the pandemic subsides.

“As soon as the governor lightens up on some of these restrictions, we will be opening up,” Archer said. “We certainly miss all of the kids that we don’t have right now, and we’re anxious to get things back to normal, but we also want to keep everyone safe.”

This story was updated on April 7 at 3:20 p.m. with photos from Li'l Lumberjacks Learning Center in Cloquet.