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This rural Colorado child care center lost its home because of COVID-19. After months in limbo, it has another.

Staff members at the new location of the Bent County Early Learning Center supervise some of the 21 children enrolled there.
Courtesy of Amy Deatherage

Rachael Tamir, a sixth-grade teacher in southeastern Colorado, texted her principal a couple weeks before she was scheduled to report to work in August.

“I’m starting to get really panicked about child care,” she wrote.

Tamir knew returning to in-person teaching meant she had to find a safe place for her toddler son, Owen, and her preschool daughter, Avery. Their child care center — the only one in rural Bent County to serve children from infancy — had closed in March and because of its location inside a nursing home wasn’t going to reopen any time soon given the residents’ COVID-19 risk.

Then came a piece of good news: The center would reopen inside Las Animas Elementary School, down the hall from Tamir’s classroom. The move, which got state approval in time for the first day of school on Aug. 17, was a welcome development in a county where licensed child care is scarce, especially for infants and toddlers. It’s also more of the exception than the rule these days as many providers in Colorado and the nation struggle to survive at all.

A July survey of 5,000 child care providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 40% of respondents expected to close permanently if they don’t receive additional public assistance. In addition, of those who were open at the time, 86% said they were serving fewer children than usual.

The Bent County center is one of 103 child care providers in Colorado to be granted COVID-related emergency waivers from state regulations since the spring. State officials said 13 of those waivers, including the one in Bent County, allowed child care programs to relocate to a new site. Nearly half of the waivers allowed providers to use non-traditional areas, such as a gym or multipurpose room, for classroom space.

Emergency waivers, which can often be granted in 48 hours, are more typically sought because of natural disasters such as fires, floods, or tornadoes. (So far this summer, no waivers have been requested because of wildfires.)

Lana Gardner, the principal of Las Animas Elementary School and a member of the Bent County Early Learning Center’s board, said child care is vital to “keeping our community alive.”

Without it, for example, the door to hiring teachers to head K-12 classrooms starts “closing instantly,” she said.

The relocation of Bent County Early Learning Center from the nursing home building on 3rd Street to the elementary school a few blocks away on Poplar Avenue didn’t come without some hiccups. Local leaders first sought space in a church, but it would have taken too much work to put in classroom bathrooms. The center’s board also had to find a new director after the former director moved to suburban Denver over the summer.

They tapped Amy Deatherage, director of the Jump Start preschool program, which was already located at the elementary school.

So far, things have been going smoothly, with 21 students enrolled in the early learning center and room for 14 more.

“We’re the only day care beyond one other in-home day care … so it was a much needed service,” Deatherage said.

She said the child care center will stay in the elementary school for most or all of the school year, with eventual plans to return to the former nursing home site. State officials said there are no other child care programs co-located in nursing homes in Colorado.

For her part, Tamir is happy to have found child care in the most convenient of locations.

While she’s teaching her 19 sixth graders, her son is back with his former toddler teacher, and her daughter, who attends Jump Start preschool in the morning and the child care program in the afternoon, is also seeing familiar faces.

“They love that it’s ‘Mommy’s school’” she said. “After five months of being home, I think they were kind of tired of me.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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