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Staff photo by Tim Barber/ The Chambliss Center for Children is located close to downtown on Dayton Boulevard.

Children under age 12, the largest section of individuals not vaccinated for COVID-19, have begun returning to school and child care centers in the Chattanooga area as the delta variant sweeps through unvaccinated peoples.

With cases rising among children this summer, some child care centers in Hamilton County have had to close and quarantine due to outbreaks, along with reintroducing stricter COVID-19 protocols that were loosened before the variant spread.

The Hamilton County Department of Health is monitoring active clusters at three child care centers in the county, with each cluster linked to five or more active COVID-19 cases, a department official said Friday.

When outbreaks occur at child care centers, closing to quarantine creates a chain reaction for teachers and families, said Heather Hicks, director of Tennessee Child Care Resource and Referral Network and chief officer of statewide initiatives at Signal Centers.

"It will affect the wages received by the staff, it reduces the income coming into the child care agency, so you run the risk of having a financial crisis, and it puts families in a situation where they may or may not have leave available to take care of their children at home while the agency is closed, so they're scrambling to find child care, which in turn is just a circle," Hicks said.

Signal Centers had five shutdowns over the past 18 months, but CEO Donna McConnico said the whole center has not had to close since September due to mitigation measures such as keeping each class contained, having parents drop students off without entering the building and extra cleaning.

"The teachers don't get together in the teachers' lounge, they don't eat lunch together, they stay in that classroom so that if there is someone who has been exposed or tests positive, then they would not be exposing more than their class."

Chambliss Center for Children has not had to fully close due to outbreaks, said president Katie Harbison, with only specific classrooms quarantining due to isolated cases contracted outside the center. Going into fall, she said, internal spread of the virus, particularly among children, is a concern.

"We really did not have a whole lot of children, it was very few children that actually caught this virus in our past 18 months of experience, and so I think we are already, in fact, seeing more children contracting it," Harbison said.

The Signal Centers early childhood education program typically sees 125-130 students in the building, and McConnico said attendance has remained at about 120 students during COVID-19.

"Our primary focus is on how can we help families navigate during this time because parents need to go to work, and so what we've tried to do is keep our classrooms open and we've done that by instituting lots of kind of rigorous protocols for containment of the class so that we don't share staff between classes," McConnico said.

As of May, one in eight child care workers in the U.S. has lost their job in the pandemic. Staff shortages at child care centers create a ripple effect for teachers and families, Hicks said.

"As we see an uptick in cases and COVID, this variant becomes more prevalent, people are making decisions that they may need to stay home with their own children or they may become sick with COVID or have a family member [who does]," Hicks said. "So staffing is the biggest issue that our early child care educators or director-owner-operators are facing right now, making sure that they have people to cover the classrooms, and so then that trickles into having slots available.

"If I'm down staff, I cannot care for as many children. Therefore, it ripples into the family, meaning that they're going to have a harder time finding child care. My capacity might be 50 children, but if I don't have enough staff, my capacity could go to 25."

Harbison said the Chambliss Center for Children has seen a decline in staffing and child enrollment, with about two-thirds of normal capacity for either group since the pandemic started.

"The biggest issue that we're finding right now is that the demand for child care is coming back, but we don't have the staff to be able to enroll more children. So just like retail and restaurants and other places are having trouble hiring, we're having the same issue," Harbison said. "It's difficult for us to find folks who are qualified and want to work with children, because they're not getting paid a lot of money and that's unfortunate, but that's all we can afford to pay them."

Both centers will require adults working with children to wear masks, and Hicks said state policy is to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations around masks, sanitation and quarantine procedures.

She said teachers are already aware of health and safety standards, but will ramp up cleaning even more this fall.

"In the peak of all of this last fall when supplies were so limited, that's one of the things that we really had to work hard as partners across the state, to make sure we could get those supplies into the hands of child care agencies, and I think what you're going to see now this fall, that's going to uptick and people are going to continue doing that," Hicks said.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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