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“Cautious and pragmatic”: county officials work with day cares and summer camps to address operations amid pandemic

Children toss water balloons during a past celebration for summer readers in the Boys & Girls Club at Washington Park on Aug. 13, 2019. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

CASPER, Wyo — Day care and summer camp programs are currently grappling with how to modify their activities to keep COVID-19 at bay, and, in some cases, whether to open at all. 

Child care providers are faced with drastically reducing numbers of possible enrollees, curtailing a variety of standard engagement activities, and doubling down on familiar sanitization practices.

The City of Casper Director of Parks and Recreation Department Tim Cortez is coordinating with the YMCA of Natrona County, the Boys and Girls Club of Central Wyoming, the Casper Recreation Center, and county health officials to develop a plan.

He described balancing the need for the programs with the ever-changing public health situation as “ a moving target.”

He said programs are having to modify their usual practices.

“You have to keep things dynamic to keep kids interested and active,” Cortez said. Usually this means rotating actives and stations, switching up groups, sharing toys and art supplies, and going to movies and pools on field trips.

Child care programs will have to trade some of those activities for the sake of prudence. “If kids move from a room for another activity,” Cortez said, “you need extra time to disinfect.”

“We’re juggling and adapting,”  said Stephanie Kottwitz-Rino, owner and director of Foundations Early Care & Education. They’ve made some changes, including keeping sibling sets together and spacing children out at meal times.

Day care facilities in this story are licensed by the Wyoming Department of Family Services, which already require specific ratios of kids-to-adults. The ratio for infants is 4:1, and increase with age, never exceeding 12:1. The YMCA’s summer camp, the ratio will 8 kids to every 2 Leaders.

These ratios and available staff already accommodate current public health orders restricting gatherings to 10 people or less.

The limiting factor for enrolled numbers, then, is the number of rooms available for use at each facility.

Natrona County YMCA’s Youth Development Director Amanda Konings runs that facility’s Day Care, Child Watch, and Summer Camp programs. 13 of the 30 children enrolled in the full-time day care program were children of essential workers.

Since the Y re-opened on May 5th, some of the remaining Day Care enrollees have returned, though some parents are hesitant, and space is still limited.

350 children are also enrolled in the Y’s Child Watch program, which allows parents to drop their kids off while they work out. Child Watch has not resumed and Konings said it would be extremely difficult to re-open the program under current measures.

In 2019, 107 children were enrolled in the Y’s Summer Camp program. This year that number will be limited to 56, with 30 currently enrolled.

“Bear with us,” Konings said. “Our orders are coming from the governor.”

Kyree Corbett, director of curriculum and preschool teacher at Kids Works, said about 72 of the 120 children currently enrolled for the spring “semester” have retuned since Governor Mark Gordon’s orders allowed certain businesses to re-open on May 1st. The facility had been open since April to accommodate children of essential workers.

Staff at the Casper Recreation Center said they are going ahead with their summer camp program but have reduced the maximum number of kids from the usual 270.  Cortez said that number might have to be reduced to 90. Staff at the Rec Center said their program has filled up early, but people can still get on a wait list.

Ashley Bright, Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Wyoming said he’s working with Cortez and county health officers to define conditions around a possible opening. He encouraged parents to monitor the group’s Facebook page and expects more information to be posted next week.

The limited openings thus far have offered a look at some of the challenges to come, and also a glimpse into how the COVID-19-era has affected children.

Amanda Konings said the children returning to the YMCA’s Day Care thus far have been “a bit stir-crazy,” and that they spend a lot of time dancing out their energy in the group fitness studio.

But she said that the behaviors of day care enrollees have been manageable, as those children are used to consistent procedures and protocols for lining up, adhering to groups and schedules, and washing their hands. Summer camp children, on the other hand, are a bit more freewheeling.

Corbett at Kids Works said maintaining social distancing has been somewhat challenging with “the littles.” 

“It’s a learning experience for the kids, and they have questions,” Corbett said. She said the hardest thing she’s seen is watching the youngest kids adapt to “the bigness of what’s going on.”

Stephanie Kottwitz-Rino at Foundations Early Care & Education said the hardest part so far operating in the COVID-19 era has been the loss of face-to-face interactions with the parents at the center. Per the governor’s health orders, parents must drop off their children at the doors and aren’t allowed to come inside.

But she says the kids coping well, and that adults in their lives are big part of that.

“Young children do have a high-capacity to understand what’s happening,” Kottwitz-Rino said. “Families are having this dialogue with them from a positive stance, and if the adults can remain calm, the kids adapt better.”

Cortez is asking parents for “grace and flexibility” going forward. 

“I want for us to get back open, but we should be cautious and pragmatic.” He said current public health orders and closures have been effective, and doesn’t want “to lose the ground we’ve made up. I don’t want us to be responsible for an outbreak.”