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‘We’re just trying everything’: A glimpse into child care amid the pandemic
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The YMCA Child Development Center's Cassandra Whisnant blows bubbles to the delight of youngsters Thursday, March 26, 2020, at the child care facility at Evangel Church. - photo by Scott Rogers

Pam Forrester, director of Gainesville Academy, can count on one hand how many times the child care facility has closed its doors since opening in 2013. 

A winter storm caused the first closure a year ago, and the second was prompted this week by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our numbers dropped severely, and it wasn’t feasible to stay open,” Forrester said. “We also wanted to make sure we were doing what we needed to for the public.”

Forrester said many of the parents who pulled their kids out of Gainesville Academy either lost their jobs or decided to keep their children at home to limit exposure to the virus.

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Youths play a game inside the gymnasium Thursday, March 26, 2020, at Evangel Church, home of the YMCA Child Development Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “We miss our kids. Gainesville Academy is a child care center, and we love and take pride in providing for our parents.”

Many other day care facilities have temporarily closed in Hall County because of the outbreak, including First Presbyterian Church, Brenau and Creative Learners child development centers.

The J.A. Walters Family YMCA is carrying on its day care program for health care professionals, first responders and other essential workers.

Gwendolyn Hatcher, association child care director, said the YMCA has dropped from serving 800 kids to 35 over the past few weeks. She said around 25% of the program’s current number includes new children of parents in the health care field.

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Kids put puzzles together Thursday, March 26, 2020, at the YMCA Child Development Center at Evangel Church. - photo by Scott Rogers

Because of the opening of the YMCA’s new center in February –– located at Evangel Church on 157 Pine Valley Road in Gainesville –– she said the organization was able to continue offering its child care amid the pandemic. The space includes multiple classrooms, infant rooms and a gym, which Hatcher said offers the staff ample room for social distancing.

Before the children enter the building, Hatcher said their temperatures are taken. The staff then place children into groups of 10, each of which remain in separate rooms.

Hatcher said the children are required to wash their hands every 1-2 hours and during room changes.

“The biggest thing for us is we’re happy we’re able to provide care for those who are taking care of us,” Hatcher said. 

The Primrose Schools of Gainesville, Braselton and Buford have stayed open despite losing around 30 children per day care center. 

Jenifer McKnight, co-owner of the schools, said each facility operates with no more than 10 children and staff per classroom. Like the YMCA, her employees use a head thermometer to test each child and staff before coming into a building.

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The YMCA Child Development Center's Cassandra Whisnant gets a hug from a child Thursday, March 26, 2020, at the child care facility at Evangel Church. - photo by Scott Rogers

McKnight said parents are not allowed to enter the schools and must drop their children at the front entrance. At night, a cleaning company disinfects each building.

Since putting COVID-19 protocols in place, McKnight said the schools have not accepted other children into the program. 

McKnight said she has searched for emergency loans with her husband, who co-owns the franchise, to keep their doors open to the community. Although they have cut down their staff’s work hours, McKnight said she hasn’t let go any employees.

“My husband and I have been doing this for 20 years and have never seen anything as devastating to families and staff,” McKnight said. “We’re just trying everything.”

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The YMCA Child Development Center's Cassandra Whisnant works with youngsters Thursday, March 26, 2020, as they perform their school work at the child care facility at Evangel Church. - photo by Scott Rogers