Liberty Academy Daycare students

Liberty Academy Daycare students in happier days. The Liberty City center is currently operating at a limited capacity. 

When COVID-19 hit, most of Miami-Dade’s child care centers were forced to close, crippling an industry whose workers are already among the lowest paid.

Many have since limped back.

More than 900 of the 1,448 programs under contract with the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe (ELC) are up and running, with the remaining 532 closed until further notice.

The award-winning Liberty Academy Daycare has managed to keep the lights on for almost the entire time. Enrollment may be half of what it was pre-pandemic, but its commitment to providing the highest quality early childhood education hasn’t wavered.

“We thought that opening an early childhood education program in an underserved community would be the best way for us to give back,” said Liberty Academy co-founder and chief operating officer Maurice Brazier. “It’s just a commitment that we have to our students – we don’t just give up on [them].”

The center closed for two weeks in March, just until it obtained enough personal protection equipment for staff. It now serves about 80 students.

“Sarah [Brazier’s wife] and I operate this program like a business, whereby you know we’re customer and family focused,” said Brazier. “I think we really maintain a very clean and very safe facility.”

Liberty Academy has served approximately 1,700 children since it opened in 2006. Sarah, a former assistant vice president at Lucent Technologies, frequently volunteered at the St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth & Families in Washington, D.C., before she and Maurice got married. He volunteered alongside her whenever she spent time there.

The couple was looking for a way to serve a similar community when they came upon an opportunity to start their own program in Miami. That’s how they landed in Liberty City. The Braziers have prevailed on offering high-quality education and experiences for its students for the past 14 years, earning them a program of the year designation in 2015 by The Children’s Trust.

Unlike the Braziers, most program owners did not have the resources to keep operating during the pandemic, made worse by murky or nonexistent guidelines from the state.

Notwithstanding warnings released by the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Governor Ron DeSantis has emphasized what he believes to be the “low risk” of children contracting COVID-19. His position is reflected in the lack of pandemic regulations and protocols at early learning facilities. Many early learning coalitions took it upon themselves to create plans of action as the normal school year approaches.

“In terms of any state regulations or rules on how the childcare program can operate in a pandemic, there really aren’t any,” said Jackye Russell, senior vice president of communications at the ELC.

The organization released a “New Normal Guide” in June detailing instructions for students and teachers to follow, including operating classrooms with 10 or fewer students and disinfecting touch points every two to three hours.

About 80% – roughly 1,120, of the child care centers that are contracted with the ELC in Miami-Dade/Monroe – closed when the outbreak first rocked the counties, said Russell. She, along with the other 29 coalitions within the state, worked together to come up with a way to fund those facilities, even if children were not attending, to prevent permanent closures.

Some child care providers, like Liberty Academy, have relied on Paycheck Protection Program loans and grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) to stay afloat during the outbreak.

“I think that was a huge help. We started to see many of the programs open back up at that point,” said Russell. “That [also] helped increase the number of programs families could access.”

Yet, there are currently some programs and services that cannot be handled virtually, said Russell. Child care providers who instruct voluntary pre-K cannot get paid unless they are physically teaching class, hindering caregivers from offering instruction virtually.

“That’s all still to be worked out,” said Russell.

The local ELC currently offers a special voucher for free care exclusively for first responders and healthcare workers but stopped accepting new applications for such applicants as of July 1.

While the pandemic continues to impede its enrollment numbers, Liberty Academy is offering alternate ways for parents to access educational materials. Parents can choose to enroll their children in strictly virtual learning, a hybrid model where students can come in some days out of the week, or full-time in-person instruction.

“It’s really hard what we’re going to do for the rest of the year,” said Brazier. “But safety is going to be our number one concern.”

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