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In Charlotte, pandemic closes a quarter of all day cares, upending parents’ plans

Phyllis Johnson, the director of Tots Round the Clock stands in the playroom on Thursday, July...
Phyllis Johnson, the director of Tots Round the Clock stands in the playroom on Thursday, July 16, 2020. Johnson stopped providing daycare on April 1st after it was mandated by the state to close down. Johnson said she is ready to open once it is safe with extra cleaning measures and social distancing in place.(JOSHUA KOMER | THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER | JOSHUA KOMER | THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER)
Published: Jul. 27, 2020 at 6:47 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Devna Bose/Charlotte Observer) - At first, it wasn’t so bad.

When schools shuttered and her daughter’s daycare in east Charlotte closed in April, Jovarya Wilson got to spend more time with her children. The timing aligned well — the retail store she managed closed around the same time.

But when Wilson returned to work in May and her daughters remained at home, her situation became much more difficult, forcing her awake at the crack of dawn each morning to ensure she had child care.

“It was a nightmare,” she said.

Wilson is one of the thousands of North Carolina parents left without child care as the state’s economy slowly restarts and parents return to work.

In Mecklenburg County, about 25% of child-care centers are still closed, in line with North Carolina’s numbers. (Included in these counts are centers closed for the summer months.) In April, more than 40% were closed in North Carolina, and one in four facilities in the state — more than 1,500 — remain closed, exacerbating the state’s already existing child care deserts. Many urban counties’ child care programs have mostly reopened — only 11% are still closed in Wake and 19% in Forsyth — but more than half of facilities are empty in more rural counties.

Before the pandemic, Wilson’s 3-year-old daughter, Raigan, went to Tots Round The Clock, a center on Eastway Drive, while she went to work.

“I didn’t have to worry about her there,” Wilson said. “She had lunch and playtime. I just dropped her off and picked her up.”

Now, rotating family members are taking care of Wilson’s daughters during work hours, as Wilson waits for Tots Round The Clock to reopen.

But owner Phyllis Johnson isn’t sure her business will ever recover.

Hundreds of children, including Wilson’s other daughter, now age 8, have passed through Tots Round The Clock’s door since Johnson started the childcare center more than 20 years ago.

Johnson, who is 65 with pre-existing health conditions, decided to close the center in April in the interest of her and her students’ personal safety.

“For the sake of health, it was best we close,” she said. “It was not worth the risk.”

Though some other child-care centers in Charlotte have opened, Johnson decided to err on the side of caution and plans to keep hers closed until the city’s coronavirus rates change.

Mecklenburg County’s COVID-19 numbers continue to surge, and at least three daycare centers in Charlotte have closed due to coronavirus outbreaks in their staff and children. (One has since reopened and the cluster was deemed “over” by the state.)

As much as Wilson wants to send her daughter back to daycare, she shares Johnson’s concerns — though she worries her daughters also face the risk of getting infected at home.

When Wilson’s store reopened, she said it was busy for weeks. She wears a mask while helping customers and washes her hands constantly, but her fears remain.

“I really struggle coming to work,” she said. “Every day I hope that neither one of them gets sick.”

Eleanor Toliver operates the First Ward Child Development Center in uptown Charlotte. Her center has remained open, only temporarily closing when not enough students attended to be “worth turning the lights on.”

She’s managed to keep her center’s doors open because she received a Paycheck Protection Program loan on her second attempt and enrollment is picking back up, but she fears for smaller centers like Johnson’s.

In her two decades in childcare, Toliver said she’s seen “nothing like this.”

“It’s going to be devastating. It’s going to be real hard for some centers to recover,” she said. “When moms go to work and dads go to work, someone has to keep the children. When we talk about economic recovery, you can’t do that without childcare.”

Johnson said she is financially prepared to keep the center closed for six more months. After that, though, she’s not sure what she’ll do.

“I’m playing the waiting game… but this is forcing me into retirement. I don’t know that I’ll reopen — there are too many uncertainties,” Johnson said. “Everything depends on the pandemic. I don’t know what the future holds.”