Chattanooga area child cares face new rules, uncertainty as they begin to reopen amid coronavirus

Contributed Photo/Times Free Press. Child-sized face masks are just some one of the supplies that local child care providers are trying to find as they begin to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many manufacturers have started making adult-sized reusable cloth masks, but masks that will fit little faces are harder to find and The Chambliss Center for Children is looking for hundreds. These masks were made and donated to the center by Judy Giles. Photo courtesy of the Chambliss Center.

The Chambliss Center for Children is looking for child-sized face masks - hundreds of them.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that staff and some children at child care facilities wear face masks as much as possible to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but then there are meal and nap times when a child wouldn't be wearing a mask.

And what does the child wear on Tuesday when the mask they wore on Monday is being washed? How do staff members even wash the masks to ensure they remain sterile and sanitized?

These questions are just a glimpse of what child care providers are grappling with as day care and preschool facilities begin to reopen and expand enrollment as Chattanooga and the state reopen amid a global pandemic.

"It's going to be a challenge for us, and we're definitely going to do everything that we ought to do to keep children safe," said Katie Harbison, president of the Chambliss Center for Children. "The problem is the CDC makes regulations, but they've never run a child care program and children don't necessarily operate that way."


The Chambliss Center for Children is seeking donations for cloth face masks in adult and child sizes. Elastic ear bands are preferred for child-sized masks. Email for more information.

Harbison thinks of the recommendation to sanitize toys after every child plays with it - but wonders if it's possible to keep one two-year-old from grabbing a toy that another has already touched or slobbered on.

The Chambliss Center has been open to care for children of essential workers, but has only had about 15 students since March 23, when the center closed its doors for most families. It plans to reopen on May 18.

Some child care facilities in Chattanooga have already begun to reopen alongside certain businesses and industries under Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's plans to reopen the state, and all facilities are allowed to reopen as of Monday, May 11.

Angela Hayes of the city's Office of Early Learning works with the more than 110 child care providers in Chattanooga, helping connect families to providers who meet their needs and helping connect providers - many of them small businesses, or women- or minority-owned - to the resources they need through the pandemic.

There is a lot of excitement about seeing the children come back, Hayes said, but there's also a lot of fear.

Hayes shared a conversation she recently had with Sabrina Bradley, director of A Mother's Love Child Care.

"The conversation went from excitement - she is excited about seeing her children return and the new developmental skills they have acquired over the past two months - [and] quickly turned to a sentiment of fear," Hayes said. "She is concerned about her children and her staff about [making] sure she's protecting herself, her staff and her children."

The Tennessee Department of Human Services regularly updates providers across the state on the newest CDC guidelines.

All providers are expected to have in-depth plans for re-opening and for everything from parent drop-off and pick-up to how to handle meal times, potty breaks, diaper changes and what type of social distancing to enforce.

Providers are also worried about funding and their own financial commitments.

A Mother's Love was only at about 40% capacity this week, and Bradley isn't sure how many more students might return.

"Some parents are not returning maybe because of a precautionary measure, some parents are not returning because they are no longer employed," Hayes said.

There isn't clear guidance on whether children, who do not seem to be especially susceptible to COVID-19 but can easily spread the virus to caregivers and family members, should return to these facilities at all.


The Tennessee Department of Human Services is recommending all child care-providers follow CDC guidance for child care providers that remain open. Parents and caregivers should also familiarize themselves with the recommendations. Providers should: - Limit the number of people in the facility as much as possible. - Pick-up and drop-off procedures should occur outside the facility. Hand-washing stations are recommended as well as staggering arrival and dismissal times. - Providers could consider screening both children and staff for illness, such as taking their temperatures, before allowing them to be admitted to the facility. - Limit class sizes and groups to 10 students or less. - Staff and older children - at least two or older - should wear face coverings within the facility as much as possible. - Sick children should be separated and sent home as quickly as possible. For more information, visit: Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The city of Chattanooga is encouraging parents to stay home with their children as much as possible, said spokeswoman Richel Albright.

"Mayor [Andy] Berke would say if you are as a parent are able to work from home and work remotely, keep your kid home with you," she said.

But child care providers and advocates know that some families don't have options.

"There is no way you can leave little kids by themselves. If families are being asked to go back to work or risk their own financial well-being, we are putting them in an untenable situation without having child care available," said Ariel Ford, director of the city's Office of Early Learning.

Part of Ford's job is to help support providers who are struggling financially as they grapple with whether to reopen or not.

The Early Matters Chattanooga coalition, an offshoot of Chattanooga 2.0, launched the Emergency Child Care Provider Bridge Fund last month in an effort to help financially support child care providers while they waited for state and federal help. Within three weeks, the fund of more than $200,000 was nearly exhausted and had provided funding to at least 37 providers.

Many child care providers are also eligible for small business grants or support programs through the city's office of Economic and Community Development. The city is also hosting a series of webinars on reopening safely for different industries based on guidelines created by Tennessee's Economic Recovery Group, including a webinar for child care providers on Tuesday, May 12.

Providing a safe option for children and parents is the Chambliss Center's motivation for reopening, Harbison said.

"Knowing that our parents are having to go back to work, and if they are going back to work, they need child care. We are there as a community service and we are there for parents," she said. "If parents are having to go back to work and they don't have a safe child care environment, they are going to have to leave their children in an unsafe environment."

Hayes encourages parents who are nervous to talk to their care provider's leaders about what plans they have in place.

"I would encourage them to become familiar with the CDC guidelines themselves. Child care providers are being required to prepare and develop policy around those guidelines for their families and their staff for reopening, and they should be sharing those policies with the parents, so if there's a center that's not readily sharing those guidelines or the CDC guidelines, they certainly should inquire about that," she said.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.