It’s a little more than a month before the coming school year starts, and already Mary Gut’s day care center, Cradles to Crayons Early Learning Center, has reached its 50-child capacity.

This year, a growing number of parents sweating the COVID-19 pandemic are requesting Gut’s Janesville day care center provide full-day service for their school-age children—with virtual learning rolled in.

It’s a setup Gut said some working parents view as preferable to sending their kids to local schools poised to fully reopen this fall, even amid the pandemic.

It has prompted Gut to hire additional staff who would split school-aged students into small groups and shepherd them through a day that would include virtual learning programs set up by local school districts.

Cradles to Crayons is one of dozens of local day cares suddenly in demand in new and different ways as working parents and their employers deal with a lingering conundrum: how to return to work during a pandemic that continues to present no safe bets for how classroom-based schooling might roll out.

On Monday, Forward Janesville, the city’s chamber of commerce, released results of a child care survey that shows most local businesses polled share the same sentiment: They want to see five-day-a-week, in-classroom schooling resume this fall.

According to the survey, 93% of 15 or so businesses responding say their business would be impacted if schools didn’t return to an “in-person, five-day-per-week instructional model” in the fall.

And nearly half the employers surveyed said the businesses would be affected “a lot” or “a great deal” if schools don’t return to normal.

One unidentified business gave this response to the survey:

“If school does not reopen as usual, we will need to look at alternative work schedules to include the weekend just to keep everyone working. More likely though is that we will lose a lot of employees during our day shifts.”

That sentiment jibes with local school districts’ recent surveys, which have indicated most parents would be comfortable returning students to classrooms amid the pandemic.

Both the Janesville and Milton school districts already have committed to full reopening of schools, although both have offered options including virtual learning and other hybrid setups that involve some classroom learning and some at-home learning.

Janesville schools predict at least 1,000 students could register for virtual learning this year rather than in-class schooling.

In Milton’s case, parents have until the end of this week to decide whether to register their children for classroom learning or opt for virtual learning that would allow students to take in a school day at home or with a day care provider.

Gut said when Janesville schools announced plans to fully reopen, her day care had a flurry of inquiries from parents of elementary school-aged children.

She said the day care center has a “ton” of incoming kindergarten-age students enrolled in Janesville school, and she predicts a fair number of those students could be with her all day as they take in virtual learning that is run through the district.

She’s working with the Janesville School District to iron out how her center might help students work through the district’s virtual schoolwork.

She said some parents are torn over the prospect of sending their children back to the classroom during a pandemic, but keeping their kids home from school indefinitely isn’t workable, either.

Parents served by Cradles to Crayons include people with jobs in nursing, manufacturing and retail, while others are convenience store clerks and warehousing and distribution workers.

“These are parents that need to go to work. They don’t really have an option to just work at home,” Gut said.

She said some parents think it might be easier for students to do virtual learning from the start of the year.

”They’re worried about having a possible (COVID-19) shutdown or quarantine interruption at school, and then going back to school and then having another interruption. They say they want to try to keep everything as steady as possible for their child,” she said.

Space at day cares—whether for part of the day or all day—is at a premium.

According to the Forward Janesville survey, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted 40% of Rock County day cares to shut down.

Capacity is ramping back up at some day cares, according to the chamber’s survey of child care centers that operate under the United Way Blackhawk Region’s umbrella. About a dozen day cares have received state emergency funds that helped them continue operating.

But overall, about 10% of local day cares have licenses that lapsed during the COVID-19 shutdown and might never reopen, the survey found.

In the survey report, Forward Janesville recommends employers who can allow flexible schedules or work-from-home continue to do so.

The chamber also is lobbying the state to continue the Child Care Counts COVID-19 emergency payment program for day cares and bolster funding for the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy program, a day care program for lower-income families that under the current model doesn’t always fully cover parents’ costs.