The COVID-19 pandemic has brought childcare providers across the US to a breaking point, both financially and, for those who’ve invested years in their businesses, emotionally.
For Wande Okunoren-Meadows, director of Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia, life during the pandemic has become monotonous in its unpredictability. She likens it to experiencing the stress of everyone’s least favorite day of the week—every day.
“Every day is like a Monday that won’t stop,” she told COURIER. “We’ve been falling short of where we normally operate outside of COVID. Enrollment has just been decimated.”
Prior to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order on March 23, the average enrollment numbers for Little Ones Learning Center hovered around 171 to 173 children. During the six-week shutdown, Okunoren-Meadows and her team cared for anywhere between eight and 20 children per day.
“Our center is licensed for 193 children,” she said. “Right now, we have around 75 children. So we’re still drastically under-enrolled.”
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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought childcare providers across the US to a breaking point, both financially and, for those who’ve invested years in their businesses, emotionally. Without a sustaining financial investment to keep them afloat, nearly half of all childcare centers may have to close their doors permanently. While the early days of the pandemic saw more than 60% of licensed providers in the US close temporarily, one in five programs were still closed months later.
In California, according to the newly formed union Child Care Providers United, that’s nearly 6,000 daycare centers.
Of those that have remained open, many across the country have been forced to reduce space or hours due to increasing costs associated with safety measures and staff shortages.
What Federal Money Was Offered Has Long Since Dried Up
Unlike K-12 education, child care in the US is a predominantly private industry. About 12 million children were enrolled in some type of daycare before the start of the pandemic, according to a report from the Joint Economic Committee.
The CARES Act, the federal emergency assistance program passed earlier this year, provided $3.5 billion in relief for early child care and development, but that hasn’t been nearly enough to cover overhead and pandemic-related costs, like personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Childcare advocates say $50 billion is needed to save the industry.
Though Little Ones Learning Center is still operating daily and enrollment numbers have slightly rebounded, like many small businesses across the country, they’ve relied on financial assistance from the state and the federal government to stay afloat.
In addition to the CARES Act relief, all licensed childcare providers in Georgia were able to apply for Short Term Assistance Benefit for Licensed Entities (STABLE) in May and again in October. Approximately 3,800 childcare providers received more than $38.8 million in financial support.
Okunoren-Meadows is grateful for the aid, which she credits for keeping the center operating throughout the pandemic. “We haven’t had to close our doors forever,” she said. “But it’s been a roller-coaster ride.”
A survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) this summer showed that out of 5,000 childcare providers in the US, most of them have seen a reduction in enrollment. Many centers are barely able to keep up with their rent and utility payments from month to month.
According to the Center for American Progress, the cost for centers to meet health and safety requirements in the age of COVID-19 has increased, on average, 47% compared to pre-pandemic requirements. Providers who offer child care in their homes saw their costs increase by 70%.
The Challenges of Being Short-Staffed
Dawn Dupont, the director at Lovely Lane Daycare and Preschool in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is dealing with twice the hardship many childcare providers are experiencing right now. In addition to closing from March through June because of the pandemic—causing enrollment numbers to drop—Lovely Lane’s building was significantly damaged during a derecho in August.
“We had closed down for an extended period of time that we were expecting income in,” Dupont told COURIER. “We had extensive damage to our building and still do. We really struggled, but we were able to open up again for the first day of school on Sept. 21.”
While the center is back open, Dupont said the building is still under repair, and there is limited space due to COVID-19 precautions and a decrease in enrollment. Dupont said Lovely Lane is now operating with just one-third of its average enrollment, and half the staff is gone, too. Being short-staffed presents its own challenges, as the remaining teachers must care for more children while trying to maintain social distancing.
“Some of our employees are parents who want to be home with their kids who are doing virtual learning this year, and some people just were not comfortable working with a group of kids during a pandemic,” she said.
At the time of Dupont’s interview with COURIER, a few workers were also in quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposure. Dupont has had to hire substitute teachers to fill in. With low enrollment numbers and ongoing building repairs from the derecho, Lovely Lane is losing money every day. But paying staff members, even those at home in quarantine, remains a priority.
“We feel like if we’re gonna have people that are willing to work right now, we’re gonna be paying them,” Dupont said.
Despite lower revenue and increased expenses due to the pandemic and the natural disaster, Lovely Lane hasn’t received any funding from the state of Iowa. Dupont said the funds they received from the CARES Act covered payroll until the end of the school year back in May.
“We haven’t seen anything since then,” she said. “I’m hoping there could maybe be something else that would support child care because many members of our staff don’t qualify for unemployment because they’re considered part-time employees.”
Compounding Dupont’s economic struggles is the fact that Iowa—like most states—is facing an staggering increase in coronavirus infections. Nearly nine months into the pandemic, the state has yet to implement an effective statewide mask mandate.
“Our staff members don’t want to go to the store to buy the cleaning supplies we need because not everyone is wearing a mask,” Dupont said. “Stores like Walmart have their own mask requirements, but it’s not really enforced because so many people in the community don’t believe [the severity] of COVID. Because leadership isn’t telling them it’s important to wear a mask.”
Dupont said that while Lovely Lane operates inside a Methodist church, which keeps rent rates reasonable, they’re still losing money. “We’ve been in business for 50 years, and we have some savings. But at some point, that money will run out. We’re not at that point yet, but it’s always on our minds because this pandemic could last a really long time.”
The Childcare Crisis Is Exacerbating the Recession’s Disproportionate Impact on Women
Women account for 95% of the childcare workforce, and one in five have lost their jobs since February. And the women working as childcare providers are 2.5 times more likely than in the overall workforce to be either Black or Latina, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Recent data from the US Department of Labor Statistics showed that 865,000 women left the workforce in September alone, compared to only 216,000 men.
“The burden is extremely on me,” Barb Farley, director of North Boros Children’s Center in Bellevue, Pennsylvania, told COURIER. “I’m trying to carry on here every day. I’m coming in at 6:30 every morning and I’m here until 5:30 in the evening. I’m the owner and director, I’m here all the time, and I have a family at home to worry about as well.”
Farley said at the beginning of 2020, enrollment at North Boros, located a few miles outside of Pittsburgh, was at an all-time high. “It was thriving, it was very good—probably the best it’s been in the 28 years I’ve owned the center,” she said. “Now we have one-third the amount of children enrolled.”
Like the other directors COURIER interviewed, Farley was able to obtain relief through the CARES Act earlier this year—but it also wasn’t enough. Farley was able to catch up on rent and payroll, but with enrollment numbers more than cut in half, she fears the worst.
“As far as COVID numbers going up and us going into another shutdown, I’m going to lose more children,” she said. “I’m to the point where I’m concerned about losing the business because I can’t continue to operate if I can’t continue to pay the rent.”
Like Lovely Lane, North Boros Children’s Center operates from a local Methodist church, and Farley said the church has been accommodating throughout the pandemic.
“They’ve been very considerate as far as the rent goes.”
Providers Largely Left on Their Own to Figure Things Out
Pandemic or no pandemic, childcare is expensive, and for some families, wholly unaffordable. In many states, one year of child care costs more than in-state tuition at a public university. Childcare is the biggest expense many families face, and yet providers are often forced to pay their employees low wages. They are among the country’s lowest-paid workers, and do not receive employer-based benefits like health insurance, paid vacation time, or retirement.
President-elect Joe Biden made addressing the care crisis a tenet of his platform during his campaign. His plan aims to make child care accessible and affordable for all families while making preschool universal and increasing wages for all caregivers.
“Biden believes that if we truly want to reward work in this country, we have to ease the financial burden of care that families are carrying,” his campaign states, “and we have to elevate the compensation, benefits, training and education opportunities for certification, and dignity of caregiving workers and educators.”
Since March, the worsening crisis has prevented a huge portion of working Americans from contributing to their companies and, subsequently, to the economy. Working parents currently make up about a third of the US workforce. On average, working parents are losing eight hours per week due to childcare responsibilities during the pandemic, according to Northeastern University research. Prior to the pandemic, inadequate childcare was costing working parents $37 billion a year in lost income and employers $13 billion a year in lost productivity.
With a GOP-controlled Senate, Biden’s plans for childcare reform could remain in limbo for some time. The Georgia run-off elections in January will determine whether Republicans maintain the Senate majority with Mitch McConnell at its helm.
Congress has largely left the childcare industry to fend for itself throughout the pandemic, despite the initial round of CARES Act aid. The Child Care is Essential Act, introduced by Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro in May, would create the $50 billion childcare stabilization fund needed to ensure the industry doesn’t collapse. The legislation passed in the House but is still sitting in the Senate.
“The government says that small businesses are the backbone of America,” Okunoren-Meadows said. “Well, this pandemic broke small businesses everywhere.”