AUSTIN (KXAN) — Loretta Johnson beamed as she started talking about her Kindergarten teacher.

Mrs. Ann Brooks made such an impression that Johnson said it shaped her love for learning.

Loretta Johnson begins the school day with dancing and singing (KXAN Photo/Loretta Johnson)

“She was phenomenal,” Johnson explained, smiling. “She grounded us in our work and that stayed with me.”

Johnson, 58, grew up in the small town of Yazoo City, Mississippi. What she learned in those early years has been the building blocks for what she’s teaching today at Loretta’s World Child Care. 

It’s operated out of her home in southeast Austin. It now looks a little different with COVID-19, but her curriculum hasn’t changed. 

“We do circle time, which consists of singing and dancing,” Johnson explained. “Then we begin to do our motor skills which will come with Play-Doh, crayons, drawing pictures.”

A safer option 

Organizations, including Success by 6 at the United Way for Greater Austin, focus on early childhood education and are interested in what’s happening at home-based child care operations like Johnson’s. 

The non-profit anticipates more parents moving towards this type of care for their children during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“More families may choose family child care homes to care for their young children or even their school-aged children rather than returning to maybe group-based care,” said Cathy McHorse, the vice president of Success by 6 at the United Way for Greater Austin. “It feels … maybe a little safer at this time because they’re smaller groups.”

Before COVID-19, Texas had 4,751 licensed and registered home-based sites. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

McHorse’s organization is working on ways to support home-based organizations that include understanding and tracking children’s developmental skills to improve school readiness when they enter kindergarten. 

“Can they get along with their peers? Can they self-regulate? Do they have the vocabulary and verbal expressions skills of a 5-year-old?” McHorse said. 

The organization has teamed up with Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin or GAVA, which works with home-based child care providers in Austin’s marginalized communities that have been most highly-impacted by inequities even before the pandemic.

“We know that the first five years of life are crucial for setting the tone for a child’s lifelong learning, and when a child is in a family childcare environment, they are receiving that fundamental base of learning, and support, and security that will allow them to be successful in the future,” said Laura Olson, the director of Early Childhood & School Health Equity with GAVA. 

The grassroots organization said families are looking for safe and affordable care and home-based providers are filling the gap. 

“We know that they develop both the intellectual and social skills that they need for school readiness, and what we know is that when children receive this kind of quality care, they arrive to kindergarten ready to learn,” Olson explained. “They have already established the early skills that they need to be successful in school.”

McHorse pointed to a model used in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The city’s Mayor created the Office of Early Learning in 2017 to provide early learning opportunities for families. 

The Office’s long-term goals include increasing the number of children entering kindergarten with the skills and experiences needed to succeed and increasing the amount of quality early childhood education in Chattanooga, according to the state’s website. 

“We know less than half of our children are entering kindergarten with the developmental skills and levels that they need to be successful with the curriculum and the learning that our schools are providing,” McHorse explained. “If they start behind, you know, we’re going to invest in retention, intervention and special education services that are far more expensive than invested dollars up-front to make sure that every child in our community had access to high quality early learning from birth to 5.”

Parents looking for dual language providers

Norma Soto has heard from more parents looking for education-based programs that offer a dual language. 

Norma Soto’s young students exploring and learning outside (KXAN Photo)

“A lot will come and asking automatically, ‘Are you bilingual?’ ‘Yes I am.’ ‘Will you talk to them in Spanish?’ and I say ‘Yes, I do talk to them in Spanish,” Soto said. 

During the summer mornings, Soto is outside in the backyard of her southwest Austin home with the children in her care. She goes back and forth from English to Spanish describing the vegetables. 

Her young students hang on to every word as she sounds them out. 

“Teaching them to connect between reading, writing, recognizing speech,” Soto explained. “Being able to put two and two together when you pose a question.”

Michelle Mejia wanted her son to be cared for by someone who reminded her of her own family (Courtesy Michelle Mejia)

The home-based setting is what Michelle Mejia was looking for several years ago when her oldest was born. She said after a lot of research she found a perfect fit in her neighborhood. 

“I think it was reassuring that it was a person that almost felt like it was an extension …  of my family …  like a mom or grandma,” Mejia said. “She spoke Spanish to him … it was what we needed and it was reassuring to know that he was in a space that wasn’t too different from what we grew up in.”

Mejia now works with GAVA and has connected with home-based providers. Her work includes making home visits and helping operators with their curriculum and finding ways to incorporate more outdoor play to reinforce education. 

Hurdles of licensing 

Before the pandemic, Texas had 4,751 licensed and registered home-based sites. According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, data KXAN requested showed that the number has gone down during COVID-19. 

As of mid-August, there were 4,065 licensed and registered child care homes open in the state.

McHorse isn’t surprised. She said before coronavirus became a daily reality, there was a decline in home-based child care statewide and nationally because of the lack of support and resources. But, COVID-19 is changing the landscape now. 

McHorse pointed out that access to training and resources for many providers has been hard to navigate. She said challenges for providers include language barriers when it comes to understanding licensing requirements, filling out forms and background checks and lack of technology. 

The more kids; the more stringent requirements

In Texas, requirements by the state including inspections depends on how many children are in the provider’s care. A home-based child care operation can fall under three different licensing requirements: Licensed Child-Care Home, Registered Child-Care Home and Listed Family Home.

The Licensed Child-Care Home lets people care for between seven and 12 children age 13 or younger. It has the most strict requirements which include meeting minimum standards and at least one unannounced inspection each year. A Listed Family Home, on the other hand, provides care for up to three children who aren’t related to the caregiver. It has no minimum standards or training requirements and isn’t inspected unless there is a report concerned about child safety.

A spokesperson with HHSC said the agency investigates allegations of standard violations, provides technical assistance and conducts application inspections for new providers. 

In Texas, requirements by the state including inspections depends on how many children are in the provider’s care. A home-based child care operation can fall under three different licensing requirements

Financial hits

Norma Soto’s said COVID-19 has impacted her income and increased her cost of operation (KXAN Photo)

“One of the things we’re trying to do is help build networks, and build a connection and social capital for our families and child care providers,” McHorse said. “Connect them with other family child care providers so they share their expertise — share resources.” 

Johnson explained that she welcomes opportunities for training and resources, which she said are lacking for home-based providers throughout the state. 

Right now, during this pandemic, financial help has even been a challenge. 

Johnson cares for six children between the ages of 2- and 5-years-old. She said she used to have 12, but COVID-19 impacted some of her low-income families. 

“That was a very, very hard hit, but with my faith in the Lord I knew he would provide,” Johnson said.

"I'm a teacher. I'm not a babysitter," said Loretta Johnson as her students learn geometric shapes (KXAN Photo/Loretta Johnson)
“I’m a teacher. I’m not a babysitter,” said Loretta Johnson as her students learn geometric shapes (KXAN Photo/Loretta Johnson)

In May, the Austin City Council approved $1 million for the Austin Childcare Provider Relief Grant to help operations from March to June. 

McHorse explained that home-based providers qualified to get up to $1,000 in a prepaid debit card and either $200 or $500 in HEB gift cards to help with impact of the pandemic.

 “Their business is in their home and with the loss of income they may be at risk for not being able to pay their rent or feed their own families,” McHorse said.  

Johnson and Soto recently qualified for some of that financial help, which covered loss of income and extra cleaning products. 

They both have implemented safety measures, including COVID-19 screening and disinfecting continuously throughout the day. 

Educators at risk 

Soto’s small group comes from families working in health care.

Soto, 67, is considered high risk for the virus. She wears a mask all day and now screens every child.  

“They are not allowed to come into our home until we take their temperatures,” Soto said. “It’s changed pretty much everything. Having to have a routine for the children … make sure that we don’t put them in any danger of exposure of anything. I have limited my time away from home completely.”

Soto has had to close twice because of exposure concerns. 

According to the state, from March to August, there were 91 positive COVID-19 cases including children and staff reported at home-based operations across Texas. That’s about 2.5% of total cases reported at all child care centers.

 “I receive the kids at the gate with a mask on, with a thermometer and take their temperature,” Johnson explained. “Once they get in, we take their shoes off, we do hand sanitizer, do hand washing and then we begin to start our day.”

Johnson said she’s doing everything she can to stay open because her families need her.

She said her students need her and without her teaching they would lose out on major learning milestones.

“I’m a teacher. I’m not a babysitter,” Johnson said “I’m a teacher. Each kid that has left me has soared in life.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

KXAN’s Josh Hinkle and Arezow Doost speak with Cathy McHorse of Success by 6 of the United Way for Greater Austin about parents seeking in-home options for child care during the pandemic and how it could help keep children on track for early learning.