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Children at Pyrena Hui’s child care center in San Francisco, California, participate in an art activity. Credit: Pyrena Hui.

America’s child care providers, who care for roughly 12 million children under age 5 every day, have been devastated by the coronavirus crisis. Called on simultaneously to serve the children of essential workers and prohibited from serving other children, many centers saw their income plummet. Nearly half of child care facilities were closed in early April, according to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

By June, child care centers were either open or in the process of re-opening in most states but under conditions that providers say could put them out of business.

In late April, an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, predicted that nearly half of child care slots could be lost permanently due to the strain of the initial closures. Experts say that’s why federal funding is critical. “This toll would suppress America’s ability to rebound from this crisis by making it impossible for parents to find child care, driving up its already unaffordable price, and costing tens of thousands of child care workers — most of whom are women and people of color — their jobs,” said Katie Hamm, the center’s vice president of early childhood policy, in a statement.

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But child care center directors and employees say many more child care facilities may end up closing because of problems created by living with the virus, a situation that could go on indefinitely. Whether families choose to return to child care programs or are able to afford to do so will be one major hurdle. The second and perhaps larger hurdle will be that rules created by states to allow for a safe reopening of child care don’t currently come with any funding. Child care providers, many of whom are already stretched thin financially, will need to figure out how to raise the extra money needed to sustain their business with the burden of added compliance-related costs.

Related: Our fragile child care ‘system’ may be about to shatter

Here are five problems brought on by the pandemic that child care providers are likely to face for months or even years to come:

  1. Reduced group sizes

As part of re-opening their economies, some states have issued new rules about how many children may interact with each other and their teacher in child care programs each day.

A staff member takes a child’s temperature outside the Hope Day School in Dallas, Texas. Credit: Haley Wester/Hope Day School

Although this limit is meant to reduce the spread of coronavirus, it could be especially devastating to center-based programs that carefully balance how many children in various age groups they can serve in order to make a profit. Centers typically earn most of their revenue by charging parents less for larger preschool classrooms with lower student-to-teacher ratios. With those rooms now reduced in some counties from serving a recommended 20 or 24 students to 10, many center directors worry they simply will not be allowed to serve enough children to survive financially.

“Now we’re open but we aren’t serving at capacity,” said Enola Garland, a preschool teacher at the Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in Colorado during a webinar hosted by the Center for American Progress. “You can’t sustain a business on having 10 children in a classroom, especially preschool classrooms.”

  • Fearful families

Some families, especially in hard hit areas of the country, will likely be reluctant to send their children back to child care programs despite the extra precautions. And while some of these families have continued to pay for their child’s spot, it is unlikely they will be interested in or able to do so indefinitely, leaving providers scrambling.

4.5 million — number of child care slots that could be lost permanently

“The truth is that this month’s tuition is pretty much next month’s payroll,” said Raissa Lee, head of the ABC Mom Learning Center & Child Care in Irvine, California. Lee said the contract parents sign includes a requirement that families give one month’s notice before pulling their child out, to give the center time to enroll a new child, but some of her families have not honored that contract.

After spring break, Lee said by email, “The majority of families decided not to return. Since the pandemic I have lost 75 percent of my families and have had to lay off my entire teaching team.”

There is little data available to clarify the scope of this problem. Most child care providers interviewed for this story mentioned one of the challenges they face is families keeping kids home due to health concerns.

Another challenge is families who are not fearful enough, center directors say. Center employees can follow every safety protocol in the book, but they can still be at risk of spreading infection if families ignore health and safety guidelines outside of the centers. 

A child at the Hope Day School in Dallas, Texas paints with a mask on. Credit: Haley Wester/Hope Day School

“It is disheartening to put so much effort into something — like keeping kids distanced, and then you see parents letting their kids run and pick each other up in the parking lot and breathe on each other without masks,” said Cori Berg, the executive director of the Hope Day School in Dallas. “Or to be very detailed about hand sanitizer before picking up a pen at the sign-in table, but then a parent comes up without a mask on and breathes all over everything. It’s intense.”

  • Staffing

Between March and April, 335,000 child care workers lost their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is unclear how many will be hired back. New rules on the number of children allowed per classroom in some states will also affect staffing.

335,000 — Child care workers laid off between March and April 2020

Tiffany Pearsall, who runs the Play Frontier child care center in Carson, Washington, said she still needs to pay four teachers even though she’s currently serving just 11 students. Guidance from the state’s health department directs child care programs to keep group sizes small and separate from each other, which requires multiple rooms. And in Pearsall’s center, since the bathroom and the kitchen are down the hall from the classrooms, Pearsall needs a second teacher in each room to accompany children to the bathroom, and to prepare lunch and cover for the other teacher’s breaks, among other daily tasks.

Washington state recommends that teachers work with just one group of children from day to day but that means Pearsall can’t have a morning and afternoon shift. She also needs to build time into the schedule to accommodate the two to three hours a day it takes her staff to clean every toy and launder every cloth item. If she stuck to her regular timetable, she would have to keep the staff on for 60 hours a week to accomplish everything. For these and other reasons, including the loss of students, Pearsall has reduced her center’s hours from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. three days a week.

Trying to follow all the rules can feel impossible, she said. “You have to choose whether you’re going to follow the Department of Health recommendations, the labor laws or the best practices for child care,” Pearsall said. “You can’t do all three at once. You have to choose two. And it just sucks.”

Some child care workers are reluctant to return, even when facilities re-open. In some cases, workers are making more now on unemployment than they would if they went back to work due to an extra $600 per week through July in special federal CARES Act benefits on top of any state benefits they receive. (The mean wage for child care workers is about $12 an hour nationally.)

Staff members at Hope Day School in Dallas, Texas sanitize toys. Credit: Haley Wester/Hope Day School

Others, like Kyra Swenson, who works with 1-year-olds at the Wood’s Hollow Children’s Center in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, worry about their health and that of their family. Swenson has had pneumonia, which means she may be especially susceptible to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“I come home covered in snot,” Swenson said during the Center for American Progress webinar. “I have kids who sneeze in my face on a regular basis. It’s not a social distancing environment.”

“You have to choose whether you’re going to follow the department of health recommendations, the labor laws or the best practices for child care. You can’t do all three at once.”

Tiffany Pearsall, founder and lead teacher at Play Frontier in Washington state

Her husband worries that returning to work would be her death sentence. “Even if I got it and survived, what would a hospital stay cost my family?” said Swenson, who has two young children of her own. “I just feel like there’s no good answers for me.”

  • Additional health and safety costs

Purchasing masks, gloves, additional disinfectants and other necessary supplies for meeting the new cleaning standards imposed by states can be costly, especially for home-based child care providers. Pyrena Hui, who runs a San Francisco-based child care center out of her home, has applied for a one-time state grant that would provide her with $65.89 per licensed student to cover cleaning supply costs. She is still waiting to hear if she will get the money.

“I have kids who sneeze in my face on a regular basis. It’s not a social distancing environment.”

Kyra Swenson, who works with toddlers at a Wisconsin preschool, on the difficulty of staying safe

Hui is also concerned about the cost of treating Covid-19 if she or her husband, who runs the program with her, were to become ill. Hui said the cost of reopening is uncertain. Paying for cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and utilities is already a burden. If either she or her husband needs treatment for Covid-19, she said, “we may permanently close down and lose our home.”

Paying staff for the extra time spent cleaning along with the time required to locate and purchase cleaning materials — which are in short supply in many places — adds to the burden. Although every provider interviewed for this story emphasized the importance of following cleaning procedures, their understanding of this necessity does nothing to diminish its financial toll.

  • Lack of government support

Only a quarter of child care businesses secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through the federal CARES Act, which was meant to help small businesses bridge the gap between closing for coronavirus and re-opening. Many were ineligible for reasons ranging from their specific type of nonprofit status to errors in the application due to a lack of banking experience. Those that did get the loans, which turn into grants for businesses if they can prove they used them for payroll and other approved expenses, were required to use them within eight weeks of receipt or shortly thereafter, depending on payroll cycles. For most businesses, that time is nearly up.

Children draw on a wall at Pyrena Hui’s child care center in San Francisco, California. Credit: Pyrena Hui.

Kris Murray, a child care consultant who is president and founder of The Child Care Success Company, surveyed 300 child care center owners she works with across the country. She found efforts to receive funding varied based on the type of bank centers tied to work with. “Early PPP funding was provided much faster for a much larger percentage of people who used small community banks or credit unions, versus large banks,” Murray said. Her survey found about 80 percent of applicants that used small banks received their funding compared to only about 10 percent who applied at large chain banks. In April, Murray and her staff were working furiously to hold financial coaching calls to “map out the entire crisis picture” and help centers figure out how to stay afloat.

While funding for PPP loans ran out long before everyone who wanted help got it, the CARES Act also included a separate $3.5 billion the states could distribute for child care. Some used that money, or other funds they had available for child care, to continue paying providers who care for children covered by subsidized child care. Other states made the money available to providers in the form of grants for costs associated with reopening or buying cleaning supplies. However, advocates have said it’s nowhere near enough and have called for $50 billion in direct child care funding to be made available over the course of the next year.

“When you bring a bunch of children together every day and staff go home and come back you are just at risk and you cannot relax.”

Philip Acord, CEO of the Chambliss Center for Children in Tennessee

So far, that money has not been forthcoming. Without it, it’s unclear how most child care centers and home providers will survive.

Related: Without more federal funds, half of all child care centers could close forever

Providers facing all these challenges are just beginning to come out of the initial crisis and take stock of what their future could look like in this new reality.

“I’m fortunate now, but I’m fearful looking down the road,” said Philip Acord, a panelist in the Center for American Progress webinar.

Acord has been in the child care business for 48 years. As the CEO of the Chambliss Center for Children in Tennessee, he oversees an on-site child care program that typically serves 350 children, four off-site programs and provides care to the children of teachers at 12 schools in the Chattanooga area. His was one of the quarter of child care businesses nationally to win a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan but worries his luck may be about to run out. His centers are currently serving just 100 children. He also just had his first coronavirus scare when a staff member’s family tested positive for the virus. The staff member tested negative, but it was a reminder of what could go wrong.

“When you bring a bunch of children together every day and staff go home and come back you are just at risk and you cannot relax,” Acord said.

This story about child care programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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