Parents, supporters worried about child care and the future of Kent State’s Child Development Center amid pandemic

Children from the Kent State Child Development Center are a common site around the university’s main campus. Here, a number of the children gather for a group picture at the second annual Dr. Seuss Read Across America event at the Kent State Bookstore in March 2016.

Maria McGinnis, editor-in-chief, Sara Crawford, managing editor

Parents and supporters of Kent State’s Child Development Center [CDC] are concerned about the program’s future financial health and its ability to serve clients in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In an open letter sent Monday to Interim Provost Melody Tankersley and Interim Associate Provost Manfred van Dulmen, more than 400 supporters of the facility asked the university to “ensure the continued operation of the Kent State University Child Development Center (CDC), by guaranteeing it financial support if tuition revenue is insufficient and by allowing it to remain open when the campus moves to fully remote instruction.”

During the spring semester, when the university and the CDC closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the faculty, staff and students with children enrolled at the CDC finished the semester by working from home while simultaneously caring for their kids. 

Anne Jefferson, a Kent State geology professor whose children are enrolled at the CDC, remembers getting only about a two-hour notice in the spring that she would no longer have the child care facility to rely on. 

“I then had to convert all of my classes to remote [learning] and continue to teach them and do all of my other job responsibilities without any child care for the rest of the spring semester,” she said. “It was horrible, quite frankly.”

Jefferson said her husband, also a Kent State faculty member, was in the same position. “We were lucky to have some flexibility in terms of when one was teaching, the other one could be primarily responsible for the kids, but it was very difficult to keep up with our jobs without child care.”

Jefferson will continue to teach her classes remotely in the fall. She said part of her decision was because of the uncertainty surrounding child care at the CDC, but administrators at the facility said they are not worried.

“I don’t think necessarily we’re concerned about it,” said Monica Miller Marsh, the director of the CDC. “We have been working with a task force of 14 parents and university personnel and some consultants to put together a reopening plan and we’re really excited about our reopening plan.” 

Miller Marsh said the facility plans to reopen on Aug. 3 for an abbreviated summer program with limited enrollment. Then, it will follow the university’s fall 2020 semester calendar for the rest of the year, with classes beginning Aug. 27. The program will then transition to remote learning after Thanksgiving break, just like the university. 

The letter was spearheaded by Jefferson and a group of about 10 other faculty members whose children are either currently enrolled at the CDC or used to be enrolled there. 

“Our goal is to be able to get this issue on the university’s radar—front and center—so we can get the university to make a public commitment to keeping the CDC financially afloat in case, despite their best efforts, we fall short on tuition dollars,” Jefferson said. “And to think about how the CDC serves the community and how it might continue to do so even if classes go remote.”

The letter, which includes signatures from faculty, staff, students, parents and other supporters of the CDC, states that restrictions on classroom sizes in the fall, “…greatly limit the ability of the CDC to support itself financially. While we appreciate the university support of the CDC through providing the building, maintenance and salary for some administrators, more financial support is needed.” 

The university requires the CDC to be largely financially self-sufficient, which the letter states, “Ignores the essential service that it provides to university faculty and staff, who depend on it for high quality child care that enables them to do their jobs.”

Julie Stoll, the co-coordinator of children’s program finances at the CDC, said the facility is financially set for the fall semester. 

“Financially, we don’t have any concerns unless suddenly all the people we have coming decide not to come,” she said. “But right now, from what parents have said through our surveys and through the work of the task force we are all set financially for the semester. So no financial concerns at the moment.”

Currently, the tuition parents pay at the beginning of each semester helps cover teachers’ salaries and benefits, along with any materials they may need. 

In addition to its funding from tuition, the College of Education, Health and Human Services, the university department that oversees the CDC, pays the directors’ salaries and benefits.

The CDC also provides training opportunities for Kent State’s early childhood education students, who gain hands-on experience with the children attending the facility, and complete their classroom observations, along with care for the students’ children. The CDC also hosts several academic research projects. 

There is no communication yet from the CDC or the university, Jefferson said, describing what would happen if the university goes online earlier than expected and if it’s possible to exempt the CDC from transitioning to online instruction. 

“As a parent of a kindergartner, our kindergartners will be supplied with some sort of online instruction, although it’s a little unclear what that looks like,” she said. “You can imagine that you can’t really get 5-year-olds to sit in front of Zoom for more than about 20 minutes.”

The CDC directors said they are currently working to make the changes feel as normal as they can by involving parents in virtual meetings and different activities to do with kids at home to ensure an easy transition. 

“We’ve been working with parents and we’ve been working with teachers to try to provide some morning meetings and some experiences,” Miller Marsh said, to keep the children and families better connected.  

Parents of kindergarteners will continue to pay full tuition after Thanksgiving, and parents of toddlers and preschoolers will pay a 20 percent maintenance fee to cover teacher salaries and benefits. 

Jefferson said this puts the CDC and parents in a tight spot financially. 

“If we’re continuing to pay tuition, whether it’s 20 or 100 percent, when the university goes online — and we don’t know how quickly that’s going to be — then we’re either working without child care again, or we’re scrambling to find babysitters or make alternative arrangements which is a little risky in the public health situation, but it’s also costly,” she said.

The CDC administrators worked to create a strong reopening plan, they said, that includes sanitizing the area, enforcing health checks and making sure everyone constantly washes their hands. 

A CDC Reopening Task Force, made up of administrators at the CDC, parents, professors and medical professionals, will comply with state and university regulations as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect children, parents and employees in the fall, according to the COVID-19 Pandemic Handbook for Families, which details changes at the CDC in response to COVID-19. 

Per Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s orders, child care providers must operate under reduced capacities of:

  • One teacher per six toddlers with no more than six children in the room. 

  • One teacher per nine preschoolers with no more than nine children in the room. 

  • One teacher per nine school-age children with no more than nine children in the room. 

In a typical semester, the CDC accommodates 14 toddlers in a room and 20 children at the preschool and kindergarten levels. 

In the handbook, the CDC anticipates the following smaller groups in the fall: two toddler classes of six children, five full-time preschool classes of nine children, two part-time preschool classes of nine children and two kindergarten classes of nine children.

Elizabeth Kenyon, an assistant professor of social studies education at Kent State and a parent with children at the CDC, said the transition during the spring semester was difficult as her children are 3 and 5 years old and they require more supervision than older children. Kenyon is teaching a summer class online and said she often works while simultaneously caring for her children. 

Moving to remote instruction was hard for them, as well, since they were used to being in the classroom with their friends and teachers. Kenyon said the teachers recorded morning meetings and through these, provided daily activities for the children to try and keep some kind of routine and normalcy for them. 

“I really struggled with just not having time to think or process anything because I’m constantly either taking care of the kids or the second I am not taking care of kids I’m doing work, that I can’t always think of things for them to do,” she said. “So that was really helpful.”

Kenyon said she feels like she’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Taking care of her children and working full time is difficult to do, she said, but the pandemic means there’s a lot of frightening uncertainty around classrooms in the fall. 

“It also terrifies me to send them back into school,” she said. “But I also know the measures that the CDC is taking and I know they will be taking every measure possible to keep the kids as safe as possible so that makes me feel better.”

Being a professor — and getting a job in academia in general — is difficult, Kenyon said, and she will be submitting her tenure file in the fall. Even though she’s excited about it, given the current conditions, she considered not returning to work. 

“It has been so hard at times the thought has crossed my mind of, ‘Is there any way that I could stop working?’” she said. “I just can’t. I don’t know how I would get back into the job I have if I stopped. So, that makes me feel extra trapped in some ways.”

The open letter states, “If the CDC closes mid-semester, or fails to open, faculty and staff may be forced to utilize the Family Medical Leave Act [FMLA] to care for their children.” If the employees qualify, the FMLA allows them to take unpaid leave if they experience a medical condition or a family medical issue that prevents them from working for a period of up to 12 weeks. 

“That would be an incredibly disruptive option,” Jefferson said. “But it’s something people are talking about because we don’t have a lot of other options.” If one faculty member were to take FMLA leave, other faculty or staff members would have to step in and teach the rest of their classes for the semester. 

Jennifer Mapes, an associate professor of geography and a parent of kids at the CDC, said professors are thinking about the option with the current uncertainty. 

“I think it’s not our first choice because right now the students have enough turmoil as it is with the schedule coming out and they’d like it to be solidified, but we’d like to have child care solidified,” Mapes said, “It’s hard for us to make decisions, not knowing what the child care situation is.” 

Jefferson said she hopes the letter will cause a lot of serious conversation when it reaches university administration and hopefully prompt discussion about investing in the CDC to ensure it can remain open during the pandemic. 

“I think with the number of [signatures] we have, they have to at least publicly acknowledge the letter and either explain what response they’re going to take or how they’re going to investigate the issue further,” she said. “I think one of the long-standing issues with the CDC finances is that it’s been considered just part of the College of Education, Health and Human Services. The university hasn’t recognized [its] service to the broader university community.”

When she interviewed for her position, the university scheduled a tour at the CDC, as it’s used as a way to recruit faculty and staff. 

“The university benefits from [the CDC], and has kind of been trading on it without adequately [providing] financial security for a long time,” Jefferson said. “This pandemic has really pushed things over the brink.”

Contact Maria McGinnis at [email protected] and Sara Crawford at [email protected].