The Heartbreaking Choices Faced by Child Care Providers on the Front Lines

The Heartbreaking Choices Faced by Child Care Providers on the Front Lines

The Heartbreaking Choices Faced by Child Care Providers on the Front Lines

They were already holding up the economy while operating on razor-thin margins. Now, they are taking care of the children of essential workers as costs and obstacles mount.


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It was early in March that Karen DeVos first started taking measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus at the day care center she runs. She told the parents at her Little Learners Early Childhood Center in Ada, Minnesota, that there would be a new, lower-contact drop-off protocol, and that anyone with a temperature of 100 degrees would be told to stay home. Show-and-tell was canceled, as she didn’t want children bringing anything into the classroom, and she hired an extra staff person to do even more cleaning than normal. Even then, “the scariness of the situation hadn’t really set in yet,” she said. As the pandemic quickly spread across the country and her governor ordered some businesses to close, she faced a more difficult question: Should she remain open to serve the families who needed her, putting herself, her staff, and the children she cared for at risk? Or should she simply close her doors?

The week of March 20, she had to make a call. Governor Tim Walz had asked providers to stay open to serve essential workers. All but two of the families DeVos serves are essential workers of some form or another. “I don’t know that I slept at all at night,” she said.

“The easy response to this for me at this point would be to close,” she said. Weighing on her is not just that she has staff who are worried about being exposed to the virus as they come to work to care for children whose parents go out and work every day. It’s also dollars and cents. She’s had to spend more on staff to make sure there’s enough capacity to do all the extra cleaning and to keep group sizes small. At the same time, she’s not charging the families who are keeping their children home, so she’s bringing in less money in tuition. She got a $3,000 grant from a foundation that allowed her to make last month’s payroll, and she can meet her expenses for April—except for her own paycheck, which she skipped. But after that, if no other help comes through, “I don’t anticipate we can continue running the same way that we are,” she said.

Hers is the only child care center in her rural county. “I really do feel a huge sense of responsibility to those who work here and to the children that we’re serving,” she said. But remaining open is something she constantly wrestles with. “I would hate to be responsible for somebody getting sick,” she said, her voice becoming nearly a whisper. “That’s such a weight to carry on one’s shoulders.”

As the Covid-19 crisis keeps millions of Americans home, the child care providers that enable working parents to keep their jobs are experiencing massive upheaval. Half of all child care providers across the country have closed. Another 15 percent are closed to all but the children of essential workers. At the same time, states across the country have promised essential workers that child care will be available to them if they keep working. That’s forced providers to decide whether or not they can afford to remain open and serve those children.

It’s not a simple equation. Child care providers already operate on razor-thin margins. Now, those that are still open are almost certainly experiencing lower attendance, which likely means less tuition than normal. But most fixed costs remain the same: rent or a mortgage, along with utilities and bills like food and supplies. Staff can’t be reduced too far since minimum teacher-to-child ratios are legally mandated. In some cases, child care centers need more staff to reduce class sizes for social distancing, to do extra cleaning, or to cover for staff who get sick or need to stay home. Meanwhile, getting those cleaning supplies has become far harder—and more expensive—as the entire world hoards the Clorox wipes and paper towels that centers normally rely on.

“Those that are open are struggling, and those that are closed are struggling,” said Chad Dunkley, president of the Minnesota Child Care Association. “I haven’t heard a single person who isn’t.”

According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center and CLASP shared exclusively with The Nation, it takes $6.3 billion a month for centers to remain open for the estimated 6 million children of essential workers who need care during the workday. They estimate that child care centers’ costs are 23 percent higher now if they’re offering emergency care, while costs are 19 percent higher for home-based providers.

All told, it would take at least $9.6 billion a month on top of what the federal government already provides to ensure that providers who remain open for essential workers are able to meet their extra costs while also keeping closed centers afloat so that they can reopen when the crisis passes. It’s a staggering sum. But “we’re talking about an entire sector that is holding up our entire economy,” noted Melissa Boteach, vice president for child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. Child care providers are a key part of keeping other vital services—hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies—open. About 30 percent of health care workers, who are in short supply right now, have children under the age of 14.

So far, Congress has included just $3.5 billion in extra funding for child care providers in the CARES Act. The industry “does get lost sometimes,” Dunkley said. “We’re loud and we’re important, but we don’t have the kind of lobbying dollars other industries have.” Boeing, for example, has requested $60 billion for the aerospace manufacturing industry, and has already received a $17 billion federal loan program carved out specifically for the company in the CARES Act.

While many states have mandated child care provider closures as part of stay-at-home orders, they have generally exempted child care providers that stay open to serve essential workers. Seventeen states have mandated that child care providers close unless they’re willing to provide care to the children of essential workers. In some places, such as Delaware, Illinois, and Oregon, child care centers have to apply and receive special licenses or waivers to keep their doors open for essential workers. In Maryland, they have to report daily on the health of each child in their care, according to an upcoming briefing paper by Valerie Lacarte of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

But most states are hoping that at least some providers will choose to keep operating, recognizing that they are necessary if essential workers are going to stay at work. And lawmakers at all levels have made big promises to essential workers in the hope that they’ll keep showing up. Colorado Governor Jared Police pledged access to emergency child care for frontline workers so that “people aren’t forced to stay home simply because their kid doesn’t have a place to go during the day.” Minnesota and Vermont classified grocery clerks as essential workers so that they could receive child care. “Frontline workers—including grocery and pharmacy workers, warehouse workers, medical personnel, farmworkers, food processing workers, truck drivers, postal workers, delivery drivers, and janitors—must be provided hazard pay, child care, and safe working conditions,” Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted.

But few states are offering details about how providers are supposed to provide care, let alone enough extra money to ensure they can do it without going broke. The decision about whether, and how, to stay open is mostly left up to individual providers. And while some states have made emergency funding and grants available—Minnesota and Vermont, for example, have backed up their promises to essential workers with new funding for child care—none of it matches the scale of the need. Others are paying providers less than what they normally receive: According to Lacarte’s briefing paper, Maryland has barred providers from charging families of essential workers directly and will pay them a flat rate that may be less than what they normally charge. “They’re really weighing the health and safety concerns,” noted Catherine White, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center, against the financial cost of shuttering. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”

It wasn’t clear whether Milagros Carbajal, whose children call her Miss Millie, should keep her in-home day care center in New York City open. Neither the city nor the state told providers what to do. “Initially we were left to figure out things for ourselves,” she said. “We should have gotten an e-mail, should have gotten a text, something.” Eventually, the state sent them guidance on safety protocols if they decided to stay open and what numbers to call if anything went wrong.

Even less clear was whether she would get paid if she stayed open. She cares for a number of children whose parents get subsidies from the city to pay for care, and the city has told her she’ll get paid for them, whether they attend or not, for the month of April. But it also said it will decide what to do moving forward on a month-to-month basis. “You’re holding your breath every 30 days,” she noted. “This is another stress we have to deal with on top of everything else, which his completely unfair.” If the city stops paying the full voucher amount, she’ll have to close her doors. “If we’re supporting parents, then who’s supporting us?”

In the absence of clear guidance, providers are coming up with their own safety protocols to keep operating while protecting everyone’s health. Every provider I spoke with takes the temperatures of parents and children alike before they come into the classrooms. Many aren’t even allowing parents to come into the room at all, leading to “a few more tears at drop off,” Karen DeVos said. Cleanliness is a staple of a child care classroom, but all of them have gone into overdrive. Kids’ “poor little hands are just raw because they’re constantly washing,” she noted. Providers have shrunk class sizes as small as they can and try to keep children as separated from each other as possible.

Some have come up with creative solutions. Carbajal has the children change into a T-shirt that gets left with her every day. Tonya Holt has closed the sensory table at her center in Minnesota, usually filled with sand or water, and put away any toys that can’t be washed and sanitized after every use. The front desk used to have a drawer full of stickers, and each child could take one out each day. It’s been empty since March 1.

Other changes are harder. “We’re hugging less,” said Angelique Speight, a provider in Washington, DC. “I’m so used to loving them and hugging them so tight.”

The day has changed in ways big and small. For DeVos’s school-age children—she takes care of kids as old as fourth grade—her staff now has to do distance learning with them. It entails “a whole bunch of different lesson plans and a whole bunch of different iPads, trying to navigate the different expectations for each child,” she said. “It’s a whole other level of crazy thrown into the mix.”

DeVos’s center is housed on the same campus as an assisted living facility, and now her kids can’t have contact with the residents, whom they call the grandmas and grandpas, and normally see on a daily basis, giving them hugs and doing daily activities together. So instead the grandmas and grandpas watch them play through their windows, to which the children have taped pictures and messages. “Most of them aren’t actually related, but it is still family to us,” she said. “We miss them terribly.”

Lower attendance is also an adjustment. “It’s so different,” Carbajal said. “On a normal day you will hear the laughter, and some cries and some screaming, of children. Now when you come in, it’s so quiet.” She misses the children who aren’t coming anymore. “It’s emotional. Mentally draining,” she said. The Tuesday after Easter, she dressed up in a bunny suit and dropped off baskets at some of their apartments. Sometimes they wave and call to her out their windows when she walks by on her way to and from work.

Small things have gotten tough, too. It’s been a challenge for her to get cleaning supplies, a staple for a child care provider even without a global pandemic. Store shelves are wiped clean. She managed to get some things from Amazon, and her union gave her one bottle of hand sanitizer. Her monthly toilet paper shipment that usually comes on the first of the month didn’t arrive until mid April. It took a month for a box of 100 disposable masks to arrive—and cost $100.

Still, she wants to be open. “Even if I had one child, I was going to stay open,” she said. She’s since taken in two new children whose programs have closed.

Closing wasn’t a financial option for Jamila Warfa, either. She didn’t get much guidance from Washington state about what she should do, so she kept going because she needed the money. Speaking Somali through an interpreter, she explained that her husband, whose job is taking elderly people to appointments, was exposed to a patient who tested positive for Covid-19, so he had to quarantine himself and hasn’t been working. They need her income.

Meanwhile, she’s worried that she’s exposing not just herself but also her husband and five children at home. She’s not just caring for the children of essential workers; she has children coming in whose parents are at home. It makes her very nervous. She doesn’t have health insurance. But she can’t afford to close.

The only contact she’s had with the government was a call three weeks ago from the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families asking what she needed. She told them she needs cleaning supplies; so far, nothing has materialized. She’s tried to look into some of the government assistance programs that might be available to her, but her language barrier has made it difficult.

Some states are offering extra assistance immediately. Texas will distribute $40 million to parents and child care providers so they can care for the children of essential workers. Minnesota has created a $30 million emergency child care grant program for licensed programs serving essential workers. Vermont has offered families a stabilization payment program so that they can keep paying their providers even if their children aren’t attending day care. North Carolina and New Mexico have both committed to paying child care subsidies, whether or not the children attend programs, as well as offering bonus payments; in New Mexico, providers who stay open will get an extra $250 per enrolled child.

The Minnesota grant is a notable win in a state where child care providers have been trying for years to get more funding. “It goes further than anything we’ve been able to win on child care,” Marte said. But providers have to apply for it—not everyone will get money—and it’s capped at $15,500 a month. That amount won’t go far enough for Tonya Holt, who has to pay a mortgage on her 11,000-foot facility and compensate staff. “That doesn’t offset the loss of tuition,” she noted.

Normally, she has about 170 children in her 11 classrooms. Now there are about 30 coming every day, and, at least for now, she’s not charging tuition for the ones who stay home. She’s had to cut her staff in half, from 40 to 20. Those that do come in have a lot more to do—extra cleaning, plus acting as distance-learning tutors. “There was a very large learning curve,” she said. And, of course, there’s the danger of exposure. “They put themselves at risk every day.”

She’s been able to cut back on things like supplies and playground maintenance. But she doesn’t think she can continue to operate as is for more than a month. “Our fixed costs are our fixed costs,” she noted. “We’re depleting our cash reserves every day.… It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the finances just don’t work.”

“There’s this almost misunderstanding, misrepresentation, that because the legislature continues to say child care is so essential, that we are somehow being taken care of,” she added. “That’s really not the case.” Instead, she said, “We really need some help.”

Some lawmakers want to deliver it. On April 15, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith put forward a plan to invest $50 billion in what they call a “child care bailout.” That kind of money “would go a very long way to sustaining things,” said Katherine Gallagher Robbins, director of child care and early education at CLASP. It would also ensure hazard pay, addressing the fact that the providers who are open are putting their own health on the line. “I really think those that are coming to work and putting themselves at higher risk should have…some incentive pay,” Dunkley said. “They deserve a heroes’ fund. They’re some of the lowest-wage heroes out there.”

Angelique Speight felt called to stay open to make sure society keeps functioning. “Who’s going to take care of the patients if nobody takes care of the doctors’ and the nurses’ children? How are you going to eat if the grocery stores are closed?” she asked. “I feel as though I’m doing a good service, not just for children but for the community.” Every parent of the children she’s caring for has an essential role: a pharmacist, a lab technician, a nurse, and a home health aide.

She knows how important it is to have someone care for your child every day: Her adult daughter has special needs and relies on caregivers to care for her, she told me through tears. “I decided if they take care of her, I have to take care of the kids,” she said.

But she knows that her service comes at a huge personal risk. “We put our lives in danger every day,” she said. Staying open has created family strife. The only people working with her right now are her 24-year-old daughter and 79-year-old mother; the rest of the staff has been furloughed. But her daughter wants her to shut down to protect her mother. “The first two, three weeks was horrible, we argued every day,” she said. Her mother is also scared. But she’s determined. “Somebody has to stay open to help,” she said.

All of these providers hope to keep going for as long as they can. But the future is uncertain for all of them, particularly as the crisis extends into the unknown future. Without more investment, things won’t just get messy during the pandemic. It could leave lasting scars in the child care industry, accelerating the existing provider shortage. “We will not have a child care sector to come back to if we do not make significant investments now,” Boteach said.

“A lot of people can make it through a few weeks of tough financial circumstances, but how are you going to make it through a few months?” Dunkley said. “We’re going to see some permanent closures when this is all over.”

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