Stony Brook Child Care Services Steps Up to Assist Frontline Workers
When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the New York State on PAUSE executive order, providing guidelines on which businesses could remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, child care was deemed an essential service. Ensuring support for the families of frontline workers was a critical goal.
Although child care centers were not required to remain open, Stony Brook Child Care Services (SBCC) rose to the occasion in response to a special request from the Office of the Governor.
“The SBCC is deemed an essential service, the teachers are essential employees and we are providing child care for our essential healthcare workers,” said Karen Mendelsohn, SBCC board chair.
“We are happy that the governor deemed child care essential during this time,” said Jennifer Marino Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk.
“This is important recognition that child care is the foundation of our economy. Without safe, affordable child care, it is difficult for parents to work,” she said. “This challenge has only been exacerbated because friends and family were no longer available to help out, as we were all directed to stay home. This highlights the unstable arrangements that many people relied upon before the pandemic.”
To provide essential services during the pandemic, a business must comply with Department of Health guidance and directives for maintaining a clean and safe work environment. Before it could accept children during the pandemic, SBCC closed for two days for a deep cleaning then reopened to currently enrolled families with essential workers.
SBCC, located across from the South P parking lot and adjacent to the Stony Brook Road entrance to the University, is open to the entire Stony Brook community, not just those attending or working at the University, although most families using the center are SBU-affiliated.
“Right now, all but two families are SBU employees — essential employees working in the healthcare field as well as in the New York Police Department and Fire Department,” said Mendelsohn.
“The first week that the SBCC remained open for essential employees, approximately 25 families reached out,” she said. “Not all were deemed essential for this purpose by Human Resources, and some had school-aged children. We were able to direct those families to the Child Care Council of Suffolk and local school districts, which were collaborating with the Hospital.”
SBCC provides more than child care services as such, Mendelsohn said. “During this pandemic crisis, SBCC teachers offer parents and their children a sense of safety, learning, support and a touch of comfort.”
SBCC currently serves 36 families and 46 children, aged two months to five years. Prior to the pandemic, the center was able to enroll a maximum of 160 children.
It is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), an organization that works to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through the age of eight, by connecting early childhood practice, policy and research. SBCC earned NAEYC accreditation in 1990, and recently was accredited for another five-year term.
SBCC strives to maintain a flexible schedule. Although parents must wait at curbside for a teacher and are not allowed inside the facility, they may drop off and pick up their children according to their work schedules.
“Some come in as early as 6:30 am; others arrive up until 9:30 or even 10 am; sometimes there are later stragglers. Same thing with pickups — parents can pick up anytime,” said Denise Masone, SBCC’s interim executive director.
In March, the University began covering child care costs for essential employees involved in the delivery of healthcare.
To help meet payroll, rent and utilities expenses for the duration of the pandemic, SBCC applied for and was approved for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The PPP authorizes forgivable loans to small businesses to cover expenses for an eight-week period.
Long Island has nearly 2,000 licensed and registered child care programs, according to Rojas. Some closed at the beginning of the pandemic due to lack of enrollment and/or health concerns for the staff. However, nearly 1,500 have tried to remain open to care for the children of essential workers.
“Most are operating at a much lower capacity than prior to the pandemic, leading them to lay off or furlough staff,” she said. “All child care programs are losing revenue. Even if they are open, many parents who are not working or who can work from home have also appropriately kept their children home.”
Rojas said that guidance from the state to child care programs needs to be more specific to the needs of people working directly with children, as social distancing is not possible or appropriate with that demographic.
SBCC’s Masone concurred.
“This is the hardest part,” she said. “You cannot practice social distancing with infants, even preschoolers. Imagine changing a diaper from six feet away! We have large classroom spaces, so teachers and children can and do spread out, but teachers must be available to meet the physical and emotional needs of every child.”
Rojas said she is working closely with Masone to provide support and resources, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizers. The Child Care Council also set up a hotline, (646) 926-3784, to help essential workers at Stony Brook Hospital find child care.
“We have received a handful of calls from Stony Brook employees and helped those Hospital employees find care,” she said.
Another resource for parents is SCOPE Education Services, a nonprofit organization that offers a range of services, including child care, to school districts in New York State. Currently, SCOPE is providing free care for school-age children in 13 school districts across Suffolk County. These programs are open to all essential workers, even if they do not live in the school district where the care is located.
Even parents who are not using SBCC at this time are grateful to know it’s there in the event of changing circumstances.
“My husband and I are both essential employees but are able to work remotely from home. It is a huge stress reliever knowing that we have the privilege to use daycare services in the event of possible redeployment because of COVID needs,” said Erin Henkes, a parent representative on the SBCC board and nurse practitioner at Stony Brook Medicine.
“The center is part of our family as they help raise our children — we are transplants to New York — and we love them for that,” she said, adding that “during the COVID pandemic, the center has risen to the challenge of continuing to care for families/children, as well as taking actions to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Henke said that even though the family is sheltering at home, her children take advantage of SBCC’s optional online distance learning, which is available for each classroom.
“We have a one-year-old in one room and a four-year-old in another room, which has been helpful to keep our kids connected to their teachers and peers, but also to continue their exploratory learning at home,” she said.
Although few would dispute that the pandemic has turned parents’ lives upside down, it has produced a few silver linings for a Stony Brook couple serving on the front lines of the crisis.
Joshua Miller, MD, and his wife Ellen, have seen profound changes, primarily an unprecedented disruption of family life, during the pandemic.
Miller, assistant dean for clinical integration and medical director of diabetes care at Stony Brook Medicine, also oversees clinical operations at the University’s drive-through coronavirus testing site, located in the South P Lot.
“It’s predictably unpredictable,” Miller said. “I can’t socially distance. I do my best but I am around people all day.” Ellen, the associate director of operations for Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, has been working from home with the couple’s three children, aged two, six and nine.
“We’re learning just how resilient we and the kids can be, and drawing from skill sets we never knew we had,” Miller said. “And the five of us have family dinner together whenever we can. This is time we would never have had together otherwise, as well as Ellen and I playing a game of Scrabble after the kids fall asleep. We haven’t done that in 15 years.”
Elizabeth Brooke is another essential employee who is fortunate to be able to work remotely and be home with her two children who were enrolled at the SBCC before the pandemic hit.
“I am so proud of the SBCC teachers and staff for their heroic strength and dedication during this time,” said Brooke, who is an international student advisor, Visa and Immigration Services, at the University.
“The continuity of care for families in the line of fire is admirable and inspirational,” she said. “In addition, I am grateful that the SBCC is still supporting families who are not physically there by offering tuition waivers, remote curriculum via Google Classroom, video chats via Zoom and drive-by visits from teachers.”
Elizabeth Bojsza, assistant professor of practice at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, is not an essential worker, but she knows the value of the SBCC. Both she and her husband are working from their home in Rocky Point, where they have been sheltering with their two sons, one of whom is an SBCC alumnus and in first grade, and the other currently enrolled in pre-K at SBCC since March, having attended since infancy.
“If our four-year-old, Ellis, were attending Stony Brook Child Care, he would be spending his day involved in creative play and exploratory activities with his teachers, classroom support, staff and peers,” Bojsza said. “Now his days look quite different. My husband works for Brookhaven National Lab, so we are both working full time from home and trading off home school/activity director duties throughout the day. Our older son has a list of tasks to do from his first-grade teacher, and sometimes we are able to involve Ellis in those tasks in some way.”
However, the family is grateful to connect to the SBCC remotely.
“We are very happy that Ellis’ teachers have set up a Google classroom, as he loves watching the videos posted,” she said. “We try out some of the ideas they post for activities.”
Then there are other parents, like Marie Horton, who have no choice but to rely on SBCC in real rather than virtual time.
Horton is a registered nurse in the electrophysiology lab at Stony Brook University Heart Institute and her husband is a night ICU registered nurse at Huntington Hospital. The couple, who have a three-year-old daughter, Lennon, have been caring for COVID-19 patients from the start of the pandemic.
“My sitter did not feel comfortable taking care of my daughter while my husband and I were caring for COVID-19 patients,” said Horton. “So on a Thursday night at 4:45, I learned I needed to find full-time child care starting on Monday. One of my physicians emailed us weeks prior about a number we could contact if child care was an issue. Through my tears and frustration, I found that email, called and was in contact with the SBCC that evening. By Friday afternoon, I had a guaranteed spot for Lennon starting Monday morning.”
Horton said that using the SBCC was one of the best decisions she’s made in recent weeks.
“I measure success by the look on my daughter’s face when I pick her up. On her first day there, she jumped into the back seat and said, ‘I met my new best friend today, I can’t wait to go back tomorrow,’” Horton said.
— Glenn Jochum