How ISU child care centers are navigating COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, the three campus child care centers closed due to health and safety concerns. As the centers planned for their summer reopenings, Cris Broshar expected trying months ahead.   

"I was preparing for many messages back and forth throughout the fall semester regarding closures or quarantines," said Broshar, worklife and family services program coordinator.

While child care is different and more difficult when mitigating COVID-19 risks, the deluge Broshar was bracing for hasn't emerged. Other than a handful of individual classroom closures, the centers stayed open throughout the fall.

"It's absolutely been a success," she said.

Procedures in place

The centers have followed the guidelines established by state regulators. Included in those measures: staff and children age 2 or older wear face coverings, everyone undergoes daily health screenings, parents aren't allowed inside facilities and mixing among student groups is restricted. 

Physical-distancing protocols required a reduction in capacity. The combined pre-pandemic capacity of ISU centers is 232 children, based on the practices recommended by their national accrediting organization. That's down to about 150 during the pandemic, which carries a big budget impact.

"Even at full capacity, under normal operations, the profit margins for child care are very, very small," Broshar said. "They're maximizing every last penny so they can keep their doors open."

The centers are applying for some grants to help. They've also reduced staff as much as possible, which puts additional strain on those who remain.

"We have really prided ourselves in providing the highest quality of care," Broshar said. "A lot of times, that means having extra hands to help manage the groups."

New leadership

During the pandemic, Broshar transitioned into her coordinator position that leads child care and family services, an office within university human resources that manages the contracts for University Community Childcare (UCC) and ISU Child Care Center at Veterinary Medicine. (The other center, Child Development Laboratory School, is operated by the College of Human Sciences.)

Julie Graden, the program coordinator for 21 years, has been on phased retirement since September 2019 and retires Dec. 31. Broshar was hired as the office's program assistant in January 2019 and officially became the coordinator about three months ago.

"It's been nice having both of us with a lot of experience to find our way through this," said Graden, who counts COVID-19 as one of the biggest challenges of her tenure -- along with the 2010 flood at the Family Resource Center that displaced UCC for months.

In addition to overseeing the contracted centers, child care and family services staff administer the federal CCAMPIS grant that has provided nearly $3 million in child care subsidies for student parents, serve as a resource for students and employees seeking child care and lead the initiative to expand campus lactation spaces. Broshar also has organized virtual events during the pandemic, including a weekly Family Friday series of webinars and three Family Forum town hall sessions for parents to discuss child care challenges and solutions. 

Renovation proceeding

One ISU child care program that closed for the pandemic won't be reopening. The Comfort Zone had provided care for mildly ill children in a space in the Family Resource Center since 1993 before closing in March. Under the recommendations of a child care task force approved by President Wendy Wintersteen earlier this fall, the little-used Comfort Zone program will stay closed and the physical space in the building will be converted into additional infant care space.

Broshar said renovation planning is underway, with hopes of beginning work this spring and possibly opening in the fall. The project will add eight slots for infants, which are in high demand at the campus centers.