COVID-19, staff turnover force closure of longtime Naples daycare Precious Cargo Academy

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

Correction: The Redlands Christian Migrant Association has not permanently closed any day care centers. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that four day care centers run by RCMA had closed.

Melinda Hutchins scrambled when she learned Precious Cargo Academy, the Naples child care center her children attend, will shut its doors this month.

“It was like a rat race,” said the mother of two of the frenzy she and the parents of 64 other children face in finding new placement for their kids. “It was a very frantic rush.”

Precious Cargo is one of five child care centers in the four-county region that have closed or announced closures this year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put pressure on staffing and bottom lines. 

More:Child care centers take steps to avoid COVID-19 shutdowns; some require masks for kids

Dr. Salomon Abitbol, a pediatric hospitalist at Golisano Children's Hospital, talks about the increase in COVID cases in children that they are seeing at the hospital during a press conference on Tuesday, August 10, 2021. Fourteen chiuldren from 5 weeks old to 18 years old are in the hospital today, and they are a part of the 455 people who are hospitalized with COVID in Lee Health's hospitals.

Those were the challenges that prompted the executive committee of Naples United Church of Christ to decide Sept. 21 to permanently close Precious Cargo on Oct. 22, said Mark Harmon, the church's executive director.

The church has owned and operated Precious Cargo for 20 years on the church property at 5200 Crayton Road.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it harder to retain staff members and it was no longer practical or made financial sense to continue the program, he said.

Licensed for 120 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old, the center had 18 staff members and 66 children in eight classrooms when the unanimous decision to close was made, he said.

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Parents were given four weeks’ notice on Sept. 23, the same as employees.

“It was a very thoughtful, very considered decision,” he said.

Closure reflects hardship

Parents know competition is fierce for good child care centers in Southwest Florida and that waiting lists are the norm for certain age groups, especially infants.

They remember how temporary shutdowns of centers last year due to COVID-19 put the lives of working families in a tailspin.

Staff turnover and vacancies at child care centers that usually operate on tight budgets became dire after the pandemic caused temporary closures in March 2020 and recovery has been slow, said Susan Block, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida.

Children play outside at the Suwyn Early Learning Center at the Bonita Springs YMCA on Wednesday, August 19, 2020.

The coalition provides guidance and program development to child care centers, including to voluntary prekindergarten programs, in the four counties of Lee, Collier, Hendry and Glades.

The coalition also secures government and grant funding for the 353 centers in the region and makes sure centers are operating in accordance with state regulations.

Seventeen child care centers in the four-county region closed permanently in the 2020-21 school year, with all but three of the closures tied to pandemic hardships, according to coalition data.

So far this year, five centers have or will be closing in the region, including Precious Cargo, the data show.

For the month of August in the four-county region, nine centers closed temporarily and 65 classes in centers were closed for quarantine due to COVID-19 infection among children, staff members or both.

Data for September have not been tallied, although it appears temporary classroom shutdowns have slowed, Block said.

“For our families, finding child care that is accessible and affordable is typically hard,” Block said. “Now, with diminishing capacity in the community, the availability of child care is becoming critical for working families and, ultimately, for employers.”

Some early-learning teachers left the profession because of the uncertainty of the shutdowns or out of fear of exposure to COVID-19, she said.

But since the pandemic’s toll last year, centers have adopted strategies to avoid shutting entire facilities temporarily when cases are found, according to the coalition. Those include keeping students and teachers in classrooms from interacting with other classrooms or switching rooms during the day to limit infection spread, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What’s not clear is how guidelines issued Sept. 22 by Gov. Ron DeSantis will affect classroom quarantines, Block said.

The guidelines let parents decide if their children quarantine or attend school, which includes child care centers, after being exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“It raises some concern. We have to see how it plays out,” she said. “It is not as conservative as it could be.”

What happened at Precious Cargo

Leaders at United Church of Christ helped stave off the decision to close Precious Cargo for quite a while, Harmon said.

The center shut down temporarily for six to eight weeks in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, as did other child care centers and schools, Harmon said.

During that nearly two-month period, parents with kids enrolled at Precious Cargo did not pay tuition yet staff members were paid, he said.

On multiple occasions since then, classrooms were quarantined when cases were found, contributing to staff turnover, he said.

Tuition was not able to support the center’s operational costs as intended, and the church provided financial support three times since Harmon was hired in December.

“I am not at liberty to go into details,” he said. “The church stepped in on numerous occasions to provide funding.”

That comes as news to Hutchins. She has a 4-year-daughter and 3-year-old son enrolled at Precious Cargo. She said the closing announcement took her by surprise and nobody at Precious Cargo had hinted of financial hardship.

“At no point did they ever talk to the parents,” she said. “There was no communication whatsoever.”

She said the center never asked families for support other than tuition, which she believes families would have given. 

A 2020 fundraiser was canceled due to COVID-19 and never rescheduled, and no virtual fundraisers were held, she said.

Harmon said there was a tuition increase this past August but enrollment didn't increase enough to sustain the operation. 

What Hutchins liked about Precious Cargo was that classrooms had more teachers — about 1 teacher to 8 children — than the minimum required by the state, which ranges from 1 teacher to 4 children for the youngest ages to 1 teacher to 20 children for those up to age 5. 

“It was a feeling you got from the teachers,” she said about the atmosphere, adding that some teachers had worked there for years.

Harmon said some teachers have been at the center for a dozen years while others for less than a year. Teachers who stay until closing will receive severance.