Jessica Steinbring left work Friday confident that, despite schools closing and other efforts to slow the coronavirus outbreak, she and about 40 colleagues would be back at their suburban Milwaukee day care come Monday. They provided a vital service for residents.

But on Sunday night, Steinbring received an email saying the center was closing immediately and she was out of work. A visitor to another part of the building that houses the day care had tested positive for covid-19.

The effects of the shutdown of American public life, as local and state governments attempt to keep the health care system from being overwhelmed, are sweeping. But child-care workers and teachers at day cares and schools are a particularly vulnerable group, with closings of their workplaces scheduled to last weeks — and often no guarantee that paychecks will continue during the hiatus.

Steinbring’s day care is located inside an old elementary school building in Glendale, Wis., that is divided in half. One side has classrooms; the other side has a large community room where older residents frequently gather to play bridge.

Her bosses reached out with the bad news after learning one of the seniors had a positive covid-19 test.

“My first question was, well, do you guys feel we were exposed enough to where we should self-quarantine, and they said no. But my thinking was, ‘We all use the same main door handle to open the door.’ That may be petty, but it's enough if it stays on a surface.”

Steinbring was reassured that her chance of infection was low because of the building’s divide.

Her thoughts quickly turned to her bills. She lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and son, Khyell, who is 11. Steinbring has worked at the day care for five years and made $17.50 an hour.

She immediately sent a copy of the email to her landlord about what happened. She filed for unemployment. She began efforts to open a day care facility out of her apartment, posting on social media that she is available for anyone who needs child care.

Steinbring said she lives paycheck to paycheck.

“I have parents that are willing to help, but I hate to go there, to ask them,” she said.

The anxieties for child-care workers are diverse: In some places, day care facilities are among the most likely to still be open, with elected officials saying they can’t risk taking away child care for health workers and first responders who need to be at work.

And, like nurses, child-care workers are in a field with lots of touching, bodily fluids and person-to-person contact, making them particularly susceptible to contracting coronavirus.

They are often financially vulnerable as well. Their educational backgrounds vary. Some child-care workers and preschool teachers have bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. Others never finished high school. Frequently, they work for low wages, are paid hourly, and are less likely to have substantial savings.

Nationally, the median hourly wage for early care and education employees is $12.12, according to Economic Policy Institute research published in 2020.

“Like many low- and moderate-wage workers, they’re probably in low- and moderate-income families. Many of them live in poverty. Many of them are likely to be living paycheck to paycheck,” said Elise Gould, senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Child-care workers are also disproportionately women of color, another vulnerable community, she said.

Elise Gould is a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Elise Gould)
Elise Gould is a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Elise Gould)

Nannies have also been affected when parents are suddenly forced to work from home.

Dani Vinluan said she received job offers from two families last week. A Seattle-area nanny with 15 years of experience, she was looking forward to starting work with a new family.

Then Washington Gov. Jay Inslee closed all K-12 schools in the state, as part of the response to the outbreak that as of Wednesday had killed 55 in Washington.

Both families retracted their job offers, Vinluan said.

“They said because they have to work from home, they feel like they can do it themselves now. Or they can find a stay-at-home mom to help,” Vinluan said.

A divorced mom of two, Vinluan said she can't pay her bills and isn't eligible for unemployment because she was between jobs.

Like many child-care workers, Vinluan is paid hourly and doesn’t have a nest egg. She knows other nannies who are out of work, or whose pay has been reduced, because parents are working from home suddenly.

“We’re going to be racking up bills. And when we’re not making income, we can’t pay for that later down the road,” said Vinluan, who resides in Puyallup, Wash.

Day-care centers and preschools are wrangling with impossible decisions: whether to close and when, and how to keep paying their employees in a time when many parents are requesting tuition refunds.

Julie Saccento, 41, is the administrative director at Mandala Children’s House, a nonprofit Montessori preschool that serves just over 100 students in San Jose, Calif.

“We held on for as long as we could,” Saccento said. On Thursday night, the board and administrators jointly decided to close the school at least through March 27.

The school has 10 teachers who are all paid hourly. Some of the teachers contacted her immediately with financial concerns. For many of them, “it comes very close at the end of each month. We’re talking dollars,” Saccento said.

Julie Saccento, 41, is the administrative director at Mandala Children’s House, a nonprofit Montessori preschool in San Jose, Calif. “We held on for as long as we could,” Saccento said. (Courtesy of Julie Saccento)
Julie Saccento, 41, is the administrative director at Mandala Children’s House, a nonprofit Montessori preschool in San Jose, Calif. “We held on for as long as we could,” Saccento said. (Courtesy of Julie Saccento)

For now, the Mandala teachers are being paid to work from home, coming up with hands-on learning activities for parents to do with their children while they are out of school. But Saccento isn't sure how long the school will be able to support the work-from-home approach financially. Some parents are asking for tuition refunds, and she doesn't know how long the school can ask families to shoulder the burden.

“I could certainly put my teachers on unemployment, but, that’s a fraction of what they would normally get paid, which already is not a lot. This is the main source of income for all of them,” said Saccento, who has also weighed taking out a loan to pay teachers, an unusual step for a nonprofit.

The school has been a fixture in San Jose since 1975, and some of the teachers have been there for decades.

“They have made a career choice. This is not a temporary or part-time job for them. This is what they want to do with their lives and their careers. This is where their passion is and their hearts are. I find it really unnerving that the rest of corporate America can continue to get paid their regular salary while working from home, but we’re so ready to discard these dedicated teachers who’ve chosen early childhood as their career,” Saccento said.

Amruta Mane, assistant executive director at Interlake Child Learning Center in Seattle, is also committed to paying her staff for as long as possible. The center closed for two weeks as a precautionary measure. Mane said her staff will receive full wages during the closure. They hope to reopen the last week of March.

“We are doing everything we can to support our staff just to make sure we have the same staff members on the other side of the break. They know this is an unprecedented situation,” Mane said.

Shawna Murphy, 50, is a licensed family child-care provider and cares for six children daily in her home in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle.

“I've been really concerned because we had received a few really ominous emails from the state, explaining that they do have the authority to shut us down in an emergency. I really started to get worried about that because I did not want to have to close. I wanted to keep serving my families,” she said.

Murphy plans to stay open, although she and the children's daily lives have changed considerably.

“It’s been a really interesting ride so far because my kids are 16 months to 4 years old, so that means everything is in their mouth. They touch everything. Once you start learning about coronavirus, you can’t help but look at children in a completely different way. You know, they’re sticking their spoons up their noses. It’s been really wild.”

Shawna Murphy, 50, is a licensed family child-care provider and cares for six children daily in her home in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle. (Courtesy of Shawna Murphy)
Shawna Murphy, 50, is a licensed family child-care provider and cares for six children daily in her home in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle. (Courtesy of Shawna Murphy)

She has emphasized handwashing and is doing a lot more cleaning.

“At circle times, the songs I'm singing are about handwashing, and I'm demonstrating how to scrub your hands. It's really taken the whole focus,” she said.

The toddler gym and library that Murphy and the children visit frequently are closed.

“Their whole life is really closing in. It’s sort of the opposite, because normally at this age … your whole life is opening up with all these new things. It’s kind of hard because I don’t want to scare the children, but I also am really wanting them to listen and follow these directions and take it seriously, so it’s been a real balancing act,” Murphy said.

Murphy hasn’t been economically affected yet, but she knows that many others in the child-care industry have.

In local Facebook groups, she has read comments from parents who are complaining because they have to pay tuition after their children's day cares closed.

“It made me feel really angry, because they don’t understand child-care workers are low-wage workers. If they don’t pay for the salaries of child-care workers, when they come back in six weeks, those workers will either be living in their car, or they’ll have moved on to a new job because they need to make money,” Murphy said. “We’re all in this together and we need to support each other.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that Jessica Steinbring’s pay was $17.85 an hour. It is $17.50 an hour. We regret the error.

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