IDAHO FALLS — Stephanie Olson has her hands full with students these days.
Olson runs Little Wonders Preschool out of her home just across the street from Ethel Boyes Elementary School. The preschool can take care of up to 12 students at a time, primarily seeing younger students during the morning and after-school elementary school students in the afternoon.
As the owner and sole employee of Little Wonders, Olson had to ask her daughter to step in Monday while she received the COVID-19 vaccine. Idaho’s child care workers became eligible to get vaccinated against the virus on Jan. 12, the same day as teachers and first responders.
Olson said she wasn’t scared of the coronavirus affecting her health. But between her business and having an in-law die from COVID-related complications, she knew that if she contracted the virus, it could affect others around her as well.
“You never know if you’re going to infect someone else. And if I get COVID, I lose all my business because I have to fully close until I get healthy,” Olson said.
While both school districts in Bonneville County held mass vaccination events to get hundreds of staff members vaccinated at one time, the doses have rolled out sporadically for child care centers. Many centers are leaving it up to employees if and when they decide to receive the vaccine and there’s little information about how many are opting in.
Jill Hobbs is the health consultant for the eastern Idaho region of IdahoSTARS, the statewide child care resource run by the University of Idaho and the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children. A week after the vaccine enrollment window opened, Hobbs said that only one child care center in the region had contacted her with questions about getting its staff vaccinated.
“It’s very dependent on the different personalities and what people know, if they choose to take that immunization or not. We also have such a different scale of operations than a school district,” Hobbs said.
The majority of Hobbs’ work with child care centers has been answering questions about how they should handle the pandemic and helping them get supplies. She is currently creating a new set of emergency plans that address pandemic plans for the centers that are officially certified by IdahoSTARS.
Neither IdahoSTARS or Eastern Idaho Public Health is tracking the number of child care workers who choose to get vaccinated right now. EIPH spokeswoman Mimi Taylor said in an email statement that there has been “some uptake” of the vaccine from child care workers, who schedule appointments through the health district website.
“It is hard to say exactly how much as the vaccine registry does not categorize by profession,” Taylor said.
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials have said that they are limited from collecting data on the race, ethnicity or profession of people who receive immunizations through the state. Reviews of administrative code by Idaho Reports and the Idaho Statesman were unable to find statutes that limit collecting that information.
Enrollment growing, not all on board
Vaccine distribution is the newest challenge that child care centers and preschools have faced because of the coronavirus. Most child care centers in the region saw their enrollment drop 50% or more during the early stages of the pandemic in March.
Little Wonders lost about three-quarters of its attendance during the March shutdown. Even as parents became more comfortable with having their children attend preschool again, Olson tried to keep her enrollment numbers down during the fall.
“I was keeping preschool numbers low in case schools moved to remote classes and I needed to make room for (more students) during the day,” Olson said.
That remote shift never happened for the elementary schools. Little Wonders is back to full capacity and has a waitlist for spots.
Happy Orchard Daycare saw its enrollment drop by half and it remains below the level it was at this time last year. Daycare director Brittney Burr said the daycare still struggles at times to find gloves and some other cleaning supplies. Staffing is the biggest challenge.
“We interview and hire someone, and they don’t show up. Or it takes forever for them to get their child care worker card, so they find another job. It’s been pretty much nonstop trying to hire people since the COVID thing started,” Burr said.
Burr said Thursday that she was unsure if any of her employees had chosen to receive the vaccine, saying many still had concerns about the speed of the vaccine’s approval and how the people currently receiving vaccines have adverse side effects. Some were also waiting to see if the vaccine was effective against newer variants of the virus that were beginning to spread in the U.S.
Similar low vaccine uptake numbers were reported by Courageous Cubs Childcare, a new child care center that opened in Ammon in November. Director Michele Guiffra said she had been asked to provide proof of income for two of the 13 employees to receive the vaccine — evidence required to qualify for the vaccine in the current phase.
“We know this is still a controversial issue, so we’re leaving it up to the staff to decide whether they do that or not. We support them in their decision either way,” Guiffra said.