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Tai'lynn Louis, 2, plays with a toy house during Kids of Excellence day-care at Desire Community Ministries in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.

Baton Rouge area day care centers and preschools are taking steps to remain open and continue serving parents, especially healthcare workers and first responders whose services are more vital than ever during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Friday the closure of all K-12 public schools for the next month in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. The change doesn't apply to early learning centers, which have been instructed to make their own decisions about whether to remain open. Meanwhile the school closures have left some parents scrambling to find an alternative child care situation and provide meals that children otherwise would eat at school.

Some child care centers are limiting the number of new applicants they'll accept during the outbreak while also advising that parents keep their children home whenever possible, leaving spots available for the families who need them most. Concerns about future staffing levels have also prompted business owners to limit the number of children under their watch.

"But because the health care industry and first responders need to do their jobs, we can't just close down," said Tessa Holloway, owner of Kidz Karousel. "The need is still there."

The company, which has locations in Baton Rouge, Zachary, Prairieville and Mandeville, is working with local hospitals to ensure health care workers have child care in place if needed. It's also implementing a series of changes meant to limit transmission of COVID-19, including more frequent sanitization of facilities, health screenings for children and staff, and limiting contact with parents and other relatives during pickup and drop-off. 

Holloway said only one parent will be allowed to pick up and drop off each child, and they're asked not to bring other siblings or friends with them. Parents also won't be allowed in classrooms but are asked to leave their child with staff in the lobby area, and children aren't allowed to bring backpacks or blankets to and from the facilities, instead leaving them there to be cleaned.

All employees age 60 and over are being asked to stay home since the virus has been shown to have the most severe effects for older people with preexisting health conditions. Children aren't experiencing serious symptoms in most cases but can carry the virus and transmit it to others.

Holloway said attendance at the Baton Rouge area locations hasn't dropped much, but it had in Mandeville as of Monday morning, most likely because the epicenter of Louisiana's outbreak remains in New Orleans with some cases having surfaced on the North Shore.

Officials are urging residents to take precautions.

"Definitely if people can keep their children at home and limit exposure, please hunker down," Holloway said. "That's all you can do right now."

At least one preschool in the Baton Rouge area has announced its decision to close. The University Methodist Preschool of Excellence sent a memo to parents Monday informing them the school would close that evening because a student had been tested. The test results haven't come back yet, but the school encouraged parents to "self-quarantine in the interest of public safety" in the meantime. 

The state Department of Education, which oversees licensing of child care centers, issued a list of "frequently asked questions" for facilities dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. That list, which is available on its website, includes guidance on how facilities should respond, including limiting visitors, monitoring the health of staff and working with local public health officials to determine if closure becomes necessary.

Centers should take the temperature of all children and staff entering the facilities, and consider limiting large group activities, officials said. The agency also announced loosening requirements for staffing levels and hiring criteria to make it easier for businesses to accommodate a possible influx of children due to school closures, coupled with potential staffing challenges as the virus spreads.

Elizabeth Andry, owner of Southside Child Development Center in Baton Rouge, said she's seen a drop in attendance since the governor declared a state of emergency and closed schools on Friday, which came just hours before the state saw its first coronavirus death. She said there's been some discussion of what could cause the center to close, but they're planning to remain open for the foreseeable future.

"It just depends on what happens. We're taking it day by day at this point," she said. "Looking out for the health of our staff, families and children is of course our top priority."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.