When Jennifer started her daycare center, Diapers 2 Diplomas, 10 years ago, she thought she had it all figured out. She had been a teacher, so she knew how to run a classroom. She knew how to do the books, and she knew her licensing rules. But at the end of the day, she realized that she didn’t know what she was doing at all, and since she wanted to provide a valuable service for her community, she had a lot to learn.
Licensing in Michigan was tough. There were a lot of rules that had to be followed for the safety of the children, and just as she thought she had learned all the rules, she’d get a curveball, and another rule would be thrown at her. Fortunately, every center has a license consultant they are assigned to, and by building a relationship with her consultant, that consultant could be like her best friend. Her consultant’s advice was invaluable.
“I learned real quick that instead of being afraid of somebody who’s going to tell me I’m doing something wrong to embrace that and to learn from my mistakes along the way. That is how you truly have a great program. I think that’s what I have today.”
She worked hard with passion. During the first three to four years she was at the center every day, from opening to closing. It was only after she found the right people that she could count on was she able to step back a little. From starting with only two students, she went to her highest of 105. She really enjoyed the process of getting the daycare center to the success it had become. She felt blessed by her good staff. She felt blessed by her students. The community trusted her and she had a waiting list. Everything was amazing.
Then Covid-19 came.
When the news came that schools were closing down, Jennifer got really worried. There wasn’t enough information out there, and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do to protect her 28 staff and students.
“I made a very difficult decision to close the center when the school districts closed in order to get more information at that time. It was the toughest decision that I had to make so far as a business owner, but it was probably one of the best ones that I did make.”
A week later, Michigan went to a stay-at-home order. Everybody had to close except for the disaster relief centers, but she already had a full roster and a waiting list. Opening up for frontline workers would cause problems once she reopened, so she decided not to.
Diapers 2 Diplomas took a big financial hit. She had a 9000 square-foot facility, and it came with a large mortgage. The financial balancing act was hard. She still had overhead to pay and people on payroll. Fortunately, her husband and she had savings, and he had a business. She was also able to apply for the PPP loan and apply for a Child Care Relief Act grant, which was helpful, but it would have been more helpful if the money had come in regularly.
As time passed, there still was no news on when they would reopen. The uncertainty was overwhelming.
“There were so many days that I went to bed just in tears because I just didn’t have the right answers for my staff who were scared and didn’t know what was happening. I have 28 amazing women, who I am blessed to have working for me and with me, in order to help take care of these children. It’s a big responsibility when they’re calling you and saying, Jen, what’s going to happen? Is the center going to have to close down? Are we going to be reopening? Am I going to lose my job?”
Outwardly, she stayed positive and told her staff that she would do everything in her power to make sure they had a job. However, she knew that that was more of a hope. She prayed they would reopen soon and everyone would have a job, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could afford to make mortgage payments every month with zero income.
It was just so difficult to get information. She felt completely lost. Even her consultant couldn’t help her. When she asked her consultant about when they would reopen, her consultant, who worked for the state of Michigan, answered with, “I don’t know, Jen. I’m not sure yet.”
Those months were really, really hard. She couldn’t even tell her parents what phase they would be reopening at. There were so many hard questions she didn’t have answers to.
“Was I a little bitter? I would say a little is an understatement. I was a lot bitter. I mean, everything I worked for 10 years was basically in a blink of an eye, essentially gone. I wasn’t angry that it was gone or potentially gone because of Covid-19. I was angry because I didn’t know what was happening. We have this virus out here that’s killing people and I have little children and staff in my place. And how do we keep them safe?”
The stay-at-home order expired on May 28th. When she finally got her information, she found out that daycare centers would be allowed to open in phase four. They had to have safety measures in place before they opened the door.
So they gave special training to all the staff in addition to what they already had for safety and protocols. Jennifer came up with measures for the parents as well.
She hired two safety monitors, one for the A.M. and one for the P.M. Anybody entering the building would be asked a series of Covid-19 related questions. Adults were encouraged to wear masks when doing drop off or pickup. Temperatures were taken if someone exhibited symptoms, and if a temperature was recorded, they would not be permitted within the center for 72 hours. Having two more people on the payroll was tough, but it was absolutely important. Health was more important than finances.
They reopened on June 15th. That month, they probably had 20 to 25 students back with them, which was much lower than what it had been.
Since the reopening, more frustrations have come. She doesn’t want her babies to get sick, but nobody has been checking in on her. Her own license consultant has been placed on extended leave; perhaps her consultant has been laid off. Jennifer didn’t even get any notice that her consultant was leaving or would even come back. It’s been hard to trust the license consultants that she has been contacting. The people who have been answering her phones are rotated and extremely busy. They have no relationship to her. They don’t get her answers right away or even call back because they are so overwhelmed with everything else happening in the state.
“When you’re a child, you look to adults for comfort and guidance. When you’re a business, we reach out to people that know maybe a little bit more than us. I know I have a license consultant, who I rely greatly on for questions, that I had throughout my licensing process and throughout my career as a daycare operator. When those people who you’ve trusted and you counted on for so many years aren’t there during one of the most traumatic and emotional parts of my entire life, when they’re just not there yet, I feel really alone. It’s like, what are we doing? You know, you come in here and you’re looking to see if my paperwork for the children’s files are right, but when I have a question about a pandemic that could potentially kill somebody, you’re nowhere to be found. I just don’t see how that can balance out. You don’t lay off the people who are the ones that are supposed to help get this country put back together.”
Fortunately, Diapers 2 Diplomas hasn’t had any cases of Covid or any scares since reopening. Parents are beginning to lose their fear or maybe they’re going back to the office. Enrollment numbers are going up. Things seem OK for now.
The pandemic is still around, though, and she doesn’t know what will happen to daycare centers if Michigan is forced to go back to phase three. Whether or not they will have to close hasn’t been clarified. Jennifer hopes that as long as the stay-at-home order doesn’t come, she will be allowed to stay open just at a limited capacity.
Even though she is scared that they might not be closed, she plans to give it her hundred ten percent and pray that everything works out. She knows that if she lets fear control her, she won’t be able to run an effective program.
“So I just try to do the best that I can with the information that I am given on a daily basis and just educate myself, do research, figure out what’s the next best way for me to make sure that the children are safe. I try to plan ahead if I can. Unfortunately, you know, if the governor shuts down, I can’t plan for that. All I can do is accept it and figure out how we’re going to go about moving to the next step.”
She has hope. She thinks that as long as she puts her heart and soul into her business, they’ll be OK. Her husband often reminds her that she once started Diapers 2 Diplomas with only two students, one of whom was her own. But she’s a hard worker and has true passion for helping others. She might not be able to be at full capacity right now, but she is able to provide care for 60 plus children and their parents are able to drop their children off and feel safe and comfortable with her. That is a worthy goal in itself.
Read another story about another business with how an aerial fitness center’s wings were clipped after two shutdown orders.