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Despite need, V.S. day care center struggles amid pandemic

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When Valley Streamer Suriya Wilkins first took her then 18-month-old son, Carter, to Academic Munchkins pre-school and day-care center in Valley Stream in 2017, he was shy, she said, and struggled to interact with other children.

Now, after attending the pre-school for three years, 4-year-old Carter talks more with his peers and family, reads sentences, spells words and identifies numbers, and he is no longer as shy as he was. 

“My son used to be attached to my hip, his speech was stagnant, and he was terrified of anyone but me,” Wilkins recalled. “After I discussed my son’s speech struggles with the teaching staff at Academic Munchkins, they immediately began to sound out words for him more slowly, and they narrated what they were doing whenever they spoke to him. Within months, I saw a noticeable difference in my son’s speech, and his confidence was higher in social situations.” 

Many parents like Wilkins say that day-care centers such as Academic Munchkins — which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary — have changed their children’s lives for the better, and a number of them described the school’s founder and owner, Vivian Stein, as one of the main reasons their children could attend school during the pandemic while they were at work. 

“Vivian knew my kids by name, and I trusted her with how to work with them,” said Valley Stream resident Donn Mckie, who has two children who previously attended Academic Munchkins. “Vivian is loving, caring and always sympathetic.”

“My daughter preferred being at the school to being at home, and she never wanted to come home,” said Valley Stream resident Shannon Turner, who has two children, Wesley, 6, and Evelyn, 4. “They have a wonderful team at the school who challenge my kids to grow, and they prepared my son for kindergarten.” 

But just as the pandemic has forced parents to re-evaluate child care as lockdown restrictions and remote learning complicate their ability to work, Academic Munchkins has also struggled under a variety of coronavirus-related challenges.

“It’s very exciting that my school has made it to 25 years, and watching the children grow and mature as we educate them over the years is a wonderful experience,” Stein said. “Going through a pandemic and keeping my school open throughout the pandemic has been a challenge, and we’ve lost a lot of students, but slowly those students are coming back to school.” 

With half as many students attending Academic Munchkins as before the pandemic — the center is down from 60 to 30 children — Stein said she had to compensate by using more than $10,000 of her own money to continue running the school. 

“In the beginning of March, the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] only allowed children of front-line workers or essential workers to attend our school, and now there’s a limited number of children allowed per classroom,” Stein said. “It wasn’t just the cost that affected us, but it was more of the fear that many had of getting the virus, which kept more children from returning.” 

Although she avoided layoffs, five of her staff members took leaves of absence because they worried about contracting the virus. Three have since returned as teachers, and she expects the other two to come back in the coming months.

At the same time, the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic has forced some parents to reconsider sending their children to pre-school or day care, despite their need to continue working. Without universal pre-K programs on Long Island, many schools are privately run.

For Wilkins, a single mother who works full-time for Apple and attends school full-time, sending Carter to school during the pandemic has been tough. 

“I wasn’t working for five months because of the pandemic, and after a while I wanted to pull him out of school . . . I literally had to find money that I barely have to keep him in school,” she said.

Local lawmakers, including State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, are pushing New York’s congressional delegation to include $50 billion in the next federal coronavirus relief package to help support child-care centers and defray education costs for parents.

“Child care is expensive,” Wilkins said, “and I know this money would help me and many other struggling parents.” 

According to Solages, 30 percent of New York’s child-care centers have closed because of the pandemic, and without federal aid, she warned, many more may be forced to shut down. 

“Child care is in a bad economic place, and if the federal government doesn’t provide this money, we’ll have to slash child-care programs,” she said at a July virtual meeting. “Without this money, things are only going to get worse, which will slowly kill Long Island and New York state.”

“If we got the [federal] money, it would be a huge help,” Stein said. “My facility would benefit, and many parents would be able to get back to work.”