After Coronavirus, Nearly Half Of The Day Care Centers In The U.S. Could Be Gone

Twelve years before the current coronavirus pandemic, Shaun Rose helped save his children’s day care center from closing down. The church that housed the Bethesda, Maryland, center in its basement said the arrangement no longer worked.

Rose sprinted into action, got himself onto the center’s board of directors, helped find a new space and oversaw the construction of the center’s new home. 

Ultimately, he helped grow the Rock Spring Children’s Center into a bigger school, with 176 kids, from infants to preschoolers. Rose, now 48, became the center’s director, leaving his job as a math teacher and fulfilling what felt like a calling. 

“That was going to be the story of my lifetime,” Rose said.

Now he’s not so sure. Turns out, the center needs another rescue because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown.

Rose is one of many child care providers facing the possibility that their centers won’t survive the pandemic. “But I’m going to try,” said Rose, who also does advocacy work for the Maryland State Childcare Association.

Roughly half of all available slots in licensed child care centers and homes are at risk of disappearing because of the pandemic, according to an analysis released Friday morning by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Center for American Progress that looks at data collected by both groups.

Like most small businesses right now, child care centers around the country are struggling to stay alive. More than 60% of licensed child care providers have already shut down because of the crisis, according to a survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Some are still paying workers. But more than 37% have laid off or furloughed staff, and 41% expect to do so in the coming weeks, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. This has primarily hurt women, who make up 94% of child care service providers and have been disproportionately affected by the economic shutdown. Most of the women working in child care centers are making minimum wage ― and the centers themselves are on shaky financial footing, often operating on razor-thin margins. 

Some child care centers are still open, taking in the children of essential workers ― about 17% are open for this purpose, according to the NAEYC survey ― but those centers are also struggling. They’re seeing fewer kids coming in and are grappling with confusing (and expensive) guidance on how to keep them safe.

The shutdown will eventually end. But many day cares might not survive it, wreaking havoc on their workers and the parents and children who rely on them, eventually affecting the health of the economy.

Ripple Effects Will Be Felt For Years

Without safe and secure day care options, many parents, particularly women, won’t be able to get back to work. Indeed, school closures are already leading many to consider quitting their jobs.

“If we don’t deal with this now, the repercussions and ripple effects of this crisis, especially for women and women of color, will be felt for years in our economy,” said Katherine Gallagher Robbins, director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that alleviate poverty.

Many businesses and workers are now struggling because employees are caring for children who are home from schools. That lack of child care nationwide during the crisis has drawn attention to just how essential it is. 

Tosha Kelly runs a day care center on Chicago’s South Side. She said that parents ― postal workers, grocery store workers, a nurse and more ― call her every day to see when her center will reopen. Some are going back to work; another said her child’s current caretaker, a grandparent, has started coughing. 

“We keep in contact with our parents. The first question they ask is: When are you opening?” said Kelly, who is an executive board member of the Service Employees International Union, representing family child care providers. “We are essential workers ourselves. Parents feel safe when they know their child is coming to a place that they consistently come to every day.”

So far, Congress hasn’t taken the importance of child care into account in its relief efforts. Child care centers have been largely an afterthought to policymakers crafting bailouts for critical industries in the travel and hospitality sectors. Airlines are getting a $25 billion bailout. Early childhood education, meanwhile, got about $4 billion in additional funding for block grants to centers and money for Head Start through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed last month. A pittance, when you consider that Harvard University was offered nearly $9 million in relief money as part of the same legislation. (Harvard said it would turn the money down.)

In order to survive, child care centers would need $9.6 billion per month to make it through the pandemic, according to an analysis that the Center for Law and Social Policy released Thursday. That money would fund the centers that were forced to close during the crisis and help those places that are remaining open to care for the children of essential workers. 

‘We’re The Afterthought’

The fate of day care stands in sharp contrast to the public school system. For the most part, parents with children in K-12 aren’t worried that their kids won’t have a school to return to. That’s not the case for parents with younger children in child care. 

“Everything is about elementary and middle school. We are just as important. We educate kids, too. We work,” said Laura M. Nola, the owner of Play and Learn Children’s Place in Saline, Michigan. “We kind of feel like we’re the afterthought.”  

Nola initially tried to keep her center going through the first weeks of her state’s shutdown so that essential workers could drop off their kids. It wasn’t sustainable, she said. Some parents were diagnosed with COVID-19, and she had to shut down the center. It reopened, but another case popped up, and Nola had to close again.

The state provided little guidance on how to remain open safely. Social distancing guidelines don’t make sense when working with toddlers. And taking kids’ temperatures outside the building, before they entered the school, wasn’t workable in the cold Michigan weather; staff members couldn’t read the thermometers. “It’s a Catch-22, because you don’t want people to not be able to work because you’re closed,” Nola said. “There are so many hard decisions you have to make.”

Nola thinks she can keep her business afloat for a few more months. She’s still paying teachers and connecting with parents remotely. After that, perhaps she can get a “super scaled-down” school up and running. “We went through this with the recession, too,” she said. 

Nola expects a decline in business even after more services reopen. “When times are tough, people’s relatives are watching their kids.”

COVID-Era Day Care

For those child care centers that do remain open during the pandemic, it’s going to cost more to keep things running safely.

Nancy Frederick, the director of the Learning Center in Easton, Pennsylvania, has been taking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) training on how to reopen safely. There are a lot of new guidelines and procedures to get used to, she said.

Schools will have to figure out new drop-off procedures, where to take kids’ temperatures and how to question parents about their health. The ratio of teachers to students may have to shrink to reduce contact between adults and kids. Frederick expects she’ll have to hire more staff to make that happen. The center normally does a family-style lunch, with kids passing around platters of food. That’s over.

The CDC guidelines recommend ramping up cleaning and sanitizing, taking toys out of circulation when kids put their mouths on them, spacing kids farther apart during nap times and staggering the times that they are allowed out on the playground. The CDC also recommends masks for children over 3 and all adults. 

Since infants and toddlers will still remain infants and toddlers, they will need to be comforted when they cry. To that end, the CDC recommends that teachers wear oversized button-up shirts. If the children cry a lot, teachers would need to change their shirt afterward.

“Everybody will need to bring a bunch of spare clothes. Children as well,” Frederick said. “It’s hard to visualize what it will look like.” Still, she said she expects her center will be able to reopen ― and will likely see an increase in students coming from other centers that aren’t able to operate.

‘Significant, Unsustainable Losses’

Some day care owners, including Kelly in Chicago, were unable to access the small business loans in the stimulus package passed by Congress last month. There were $349 billion in funds available, and the program ran dry in less than two weeks. 

Rose, who operates the child care center in Bethesda, an affluent city just outside of Washington, was luckier. 

Rose got a loan, which buys him a few more months. What comes next is unclear.  Rose doesn’t see how he could reopen safely with the same number of students, considering the need for social distance. He says he can’t raise tuition anymore, particularly since many families are now seeing job losses or furloughs. Fewer kids means less money. That means operating with “significant, unsustainable financial losses,” he said.

If there’s a positive COVID-19 case when Rose reopens, that would likely mean the center would close for two weeks. And there are more questions: What if there are more lockdowns? What about parents whose incomes are lower, or who are among the many unemployed or furloughed? 

“It makes it hard to reopen and risk the health of everyone if we are just delaying our inevitable permanent shutdown,” he said “Lots of hard choices and no clear answers.”  


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