Aurora Gutierrez misses tying all her students’ little shoes. She misses holding their little hands and little backpacks, and teaching them about how to be kind to each other.
Gutierrez is the founder and director of the Kids Learning Center in Edinburg, and said what she misses most about the old days at the center — the days before the pandemic — is “just hugging the little ones without being afraid.”
When schools and businesses across the nation were forced to shutter in March because of COVID-19, child care centers were caught in the unforgiving current.
Across the nation, 86% of child care providers say they are serving fewer children now than before the pandemic, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It was also estimated that about two out of every five centers would permanently close without additional support.
In fear of the virus, parents pulled their kids from day cares; Gutierrez says it’s crippling her business.
At the beginning of the year, the Kids Learning Center, or KLC, was just shy of its 120 capacity, and by the end of March, only a handful of students were coming in. This was when the state closed child care centers for longer than a month to all but the kids of essential workers.
In the nearly 18 years Gutierrez has run KLC, that was the first time she had to turn away a child.
“We have never had to close our doors for the families we care for,” Gutierrez said with despair. “In just one week, it all happened in just one week. It was devastating to see the place so empty.”
Gutierrez also only had a quarter of her staff on deck — about 16 of her employees resigned when the pandemic hit. She said all she could do at that time was be understanding because she also was worried about protecting her family from the virus. But to continue supporting her three children, she had to keep fighting for her business’ survival.
She describes the early months of the pandemic as “walking through fog, because you just couldn’t see anything ahead.”
That fog pervaded the spaces of her day care, which just days before, were filled with the chatter and laughter of children — children Gutierrez and the rest of the KLC staff have seen nearly every day since they began coming to the center.
Some of the youngest students at KLC are not even a year old, and continue going for years. The staff watch the kids learn how to walk and talk, then see them through their first years of elementary and middle school. They change their diapers and teach them how to read.
Gutierrez said she has known some of the families for decades and considers the kids her own, so suddenly being stripped away from them is difficult for all involved.
“There are no words to explain the hole in your heart that you feel when you are just walking through the classrooms, going from the front end to the back end of the building, and it is completely quiet,” Gutierrez said. “It’s heartbreaking, it really is heartbreaking.”
It was unknown then when the haze would clear and the center could safely welcome back all of its students, and though some of the fog has dissipated, the future of KLC is still wavering.
In mid-May, Gov. Greg Abbott permitted centers to go back to serving everyone. About 50 kids have returned to KLC, but that’s still short from half the kids the daycare served before the pandemic. That means Gutierrez’s business has been earning less than half the revenue it was before, for nearly eight months now.
Compounding the shortage of children to care for are the unexpected sanitizing expenses daycares have had to make to meet the safety requirements the state has posed. Public schools have had to meet the same protocols, however, schools are funded by the government — day cares are not.
Gutierrez said KLC has spent more than $7,000 on unexpected sanitation equipment, including UVC and disinfecting light bulbs for both buildings (which required electrical service expenses), UVC wands and disinfecting mats. The center also bought 10 non-touch thermometers, two electric sprayers and a fogger.
“We had to learn and become knowledgeable about mass disinfecting because we had to make sure we were going above and beyond to make sure that the children we were responsible for, and the ones that will hopefully one day come back,” Gutierrez said.
The center had strict sanitation protocols before the pandemic, she said, and now disinfecting and cleaning has become almost everything she and the staff do all day.
“If a child goes to the restroom, we disinfect it afterwards. If the kids leave their classroom to the cafeteria, we sanitize their room,” she said. “It’s a constant everyday process that you are doing all day long, all day long. You are trying to be very aware of what you’re touching and what the children are touching so that as soon as they are done with that, you disinfect and sanitize.”
Regardless, Gutierrez said, being able to see at least some of her kids has brought her peace. She remembered that while reuniting with some of them, especially the younger ones, they would take a moment to pause. They would stop and gaze at Gutierrez, who was wearing a shield over a mask and gloves. But as soon as they heard her voice, they would come running into the center they have considered a second home.
Pam Torres runs a smaller center in Mission called Little Foot Daycare. Before the pandemic, Torres had nine students coming to the center, which she said was the perfect number for her to manage and pay her bills — she runs the daycare alone, alongside some help from her husband. Currently, only four have returned.
Torres said she is in the position to possibly lose her home.
“There are no other words to say than that it’s tough, and I cry about it but I know that it won’t help,” she said. “I go through anxiety and it’s not going to help me, so I have to think and do reverse psychology on myself and say ‘You know what, leave it in God’s hands.’’
Torres founded the center 25 years ago because caring for her grandson with Autism sparked a love for caring for children. Being apart from the children she has known and cared for since they were able to talk has been difficult for her.
She said she often video chats with the kids so that “I can tell them how much I miss them and so they don’t forget my face.”
Torres said she knows most of the families she works with are struggling financially. Through sobs, she said she is tempted to “call the parents and tell them to bring them in sometimes, to not worry about paying and just bring them in.”
Both Torres and Gutierrez are struggling to keep their businesses alive while dealing with the heartache of being separated from the children they love so dearly. They also both had one last statement to say: “But God is still good.”
“I can start to see there is a possibility that we might survive, but we are not out of the woods yet, but praise God it has gotten better,” Gutierrez said. “Every day is a blessing, every day to be able to greet these children and greet my staff. God is good, and that is what I have to say.”