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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Kathryn Gladden, owner and operator of Tweety's Child Care Home, sprays disinfectant after most of the children she cares for were picked up on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. With Hamilton County schools and many businesses closed, early child care providers are left grappling with a hard decision of whether they should close down to protect their employees and children from the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), or stay open for families who have no other options.

As Chattanoogans have been ordered to shelter in place and local elected officials promise to step up enforcement, more and more child care providers are also closing.

Though many child care providers, both centers and in-home facilities, have stayed open even as other businesses and schools shut their doors, since Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee both issued executive orders Thursday, only child care providers caring for the children of essential workers are now able to stay open.

Of 143 licensed programs in Hamilton County, 118 of them operate within the city limits, according to the city's Office of Early Learning — and only about 50 are still open.

Last month, when businesses, including child care centers, started to close, Ariel Ford, the director of the early learning office, predicted that 50% to 80% of child care programs might end up shutting down temporarily.

At the time, she said the COVID-19 crisis highlights "the fragility of early child care systems and the necessity of a strong child care system for industries to work."

"When you're dealing with the potential for 50 to 80% of child care programs being required to shut down or pause services, that requires more than just local investment, so we have to see all levels of government working together," Ford said.

Many area child care facilities were already seeing enrollment declines, though. Even though essential workers, such as health care providers, grocery store clerks and those who work in manufacturing or logistics, are still going to work, many families seem to be choosing to keep their children at home.

Kathryn Gladden, who runs Tweety's Child Care Home, was initially concerned about the financial impact shutting down would have on the small business she runs out of her home, but last week only four of 12 children came each day. This week, about half of her students showed up.

"For our babies, it will be better for them to be safe at home," Gladden said. She believes that a reported COVID-19-related death of a child under five years old this week woke up some employers and people who weren't heeding social distancing recommendations.

She's grateful that the state Department of Human Services will help fund her business, in lieu of staying open for the entire month of May. She's also grateful for the time to do a deep cleaning.

"Right now, this gives us a time to really strip down and clean and bleach and wash the pillows and the toys, we want to do a through cleaning," she said.

Berke's April 2 executive order is the most sweeping directive for businesses and individuals in the city so far, putting the onus on residents to remain in their homes for all but the most critical activities, including work at an essential business, getting groceries or receiving medical attention. It closed city parks, public spaces and boutiques, as well as child care programs, and restricted "non-essential" travel.

Ford said the Office of Early Learning reached out to all providers within the city's purview to advise them of the new guidelines, as well as to help connect them with state and federal assistance.

"What we are finding is that the programs have either taken their own action to reduce the number of children in their programs to those of essential personnel only or their census has fallen. The census in child care programs has fallen dramatically in the past few weeks," she said. "We are helping connect a lot of child-care programs with assistance from the state, giving them the most updated CDC guidelines and letting individual programs decide how to certify that a child's parent is an essential worker."

Berke spokeswoman Richel Albright said that the mayor's mandate was not meant to prevent workers from going to work because they don't have access to child care.

"When we are thinking about essential work, we want people to be able to provide services so you and I can go about getting through this and we don't want them to be burdened with thinking "Do I go into work and leave my child with someone I don't feel comfortable with?' We want them to still be able to make a livelihood while providing that essential work," she said.

But Ford is encouraging child care providers to educate families on their best options.

"We are really talking to families about understanding that being at home is the safest for everyone," she said. "If they have someone at home who is able to stay with their children, that's really the safest place for them to be."

Ford also said that she isn't hearing from a lot of families that are having trouble finding child care and doesn't anticipate it becoming a problem for essential workers.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga is now hosting school-aged child care for essential workers at four of its locations and Childcare Network in Chattanooga is enrolling children, ages 6 weeks to 13, in programs at four of its locations.

"At this time, we are offering childcare to provide Chattanooga parents peace of mind while they continue to work and support their loved ones," said Okeyma Wright, division president of Childcare Network, in a statement. "We understand that childcare remains an essential service right now, especially for parents who are medical professionals or first-responders or who are part of the workforce that we all depend upon to keep our communities functioning and safe."

There is child care available for those who need it, Ford said.

Lee's statewide mandate is in effect until at least April 14. Berke's city mandate extends for seven days, but the mayor is continuing to renew his orders based on current situations.

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

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