When Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools and businesses to close for the coronavirus pandemic, he asked Minnesota’s child care providers to stay open to help keep essential workers like nurses and grocers on the job. But just a few days into the lock down, many private child care operations say they are struggling to get by.
As costs for new cleaning regimens mount, center-based organizations say parents that are laid off or working from home are not bringing kids in for care, threatening tuition income that supports the businesses. The longer schools and businesses stay shut, the more uncertain the future is for many providers.
“We’re probably at about half capacity right now,” said Kristin Jaquith, director of the Stay ’n Play Child Care Centers in Litchfield and Willmar. “We’ve had a ton of families that are staying home this week and next week. Come next week I’m not sure what things are going to look like here — if we’re going to have enough children to support our staff and support our bills that we have.”
While child care is just one industry facing hardships over the spread of COVID-19, the Minnesota Child Care Association (MCCA), which represents owners of private centers, is now calling for financial aid from the state and federal government because they’ve been asked to stay open and to help ensure businesses are still around after the crisis subsides.
The Walz administration has recently scrambled to build more child care capacity for frontline workers, including establishing free programs at K-12 schools for elementary-aged children. The YMCA announced Friday it will expand its services at 38 locations around the state to care for school-aged children whose parents are emergency workers.
But child care centers and smaller family providers are essential for many parents of children age 4 and younger. Chad Dunkley, president of the MCCA and CEO of New Horizon Academy, which has more than 70 centers in Minnesota, Iowa, Idaho and Colorado, said his business “may be the only provider left in the state if this goes on for a prolonged period of time.”
“When this country wants to go back to work and this virus is gone, they won’t have child care to do it,” he said.
As Walz issued executive orders over the last week to curb public life, the governor specifically asked child care providers to stay open for business. Not all have. Rainbow Child Development Center in St. Paul has been closed since Wednesday. Director Maria Snider said she felt they had too little help from state health officials on how to keep children and workers at the business safe during an outbreak.
But many are still operating and have increased cleaning protocols. At Little Learners child care center in Ada, owner Karen DeVos said they’ve added sanitizing stations, required people to enter through only one door and have stopped parents from entering classrooms. They also hired another person specifically to do extra cleaning.
But as they’ve added staff and expenses, DeVos said tuition is dropping. For now, parents have been understanding and using vacation time they’re allotted without pulling children from the center altogether. Yet DeVos said she can’t count on that if schools stay closed much longer. Her business serves many low-income families.
If “all of the sudden we’re at a point where half or more of our children are gone and those are families that can’t afford to pay, I honestly don’t know that we could continue to keep our doors open,” DeVos said. “It’s that real.”
A crisis on top of a crisis
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the child care industry was already struggling. There is a shortage of workers and a shortage of providers, which crimps the economy, forces parents to stay home and can hurt early learning development.
While child care tuition in Minnesota often rivals that of college, due to strict staffing ratios, lengthy hours and expenses, private child care providers often run slim margins and offer meager pay to teachers.
For years, state lawmakers have worked to fix the problem. The number of in-home child care providers in particular have declined.
That’s what makes staying open long-term so essential, DeVos said. Her business is the only child care center in Norman County, and it has 47 kids enrolled and 14 employees. DeVos is working to build a new center in a neighboring community that could serve about 30 kids because she said “it’s so incredibly needed.”
Jaquith’s center in Willmar can serve about 90 kids and her Litchfield business, which has been open for 21 years, can serve about 150. There are only two child care centers in Litchfield, she said. “Before this week hit we were full with wait lists,” Jaquith said. “Infant (and) toddler care is virtually impossible to find in our area. The child care crisis would go from bad to worse real fast.”
Dunkley, the CEO of New Horizon, said his company has reserves set away for times like these and is able to weather the storm better than most. Not so for Jaquith, who employs 55 people. “I would say two weeks is going to be my max,” for staying open without help. “We don’t have a reserve.”
A plea for help
Walz’s push for school-based child care for essential workers and the YMCA’s new bid to expand its capacity could help more parents stay at work.
Yet Dunkley said the state and federal government should consider a relief package for the child care industry to help offset lost tuition, including for families not on government assistance. He urged U.S. Sen. Tina Smith to help in a phone call Thursday. State leaders have been considering the issue as well.
Walz told reporters Friday one of his biggest funding requests to the Legislature right now is for “real-time payments” to child care providers “to make sure they do not close.”
“I am asking a lot of out of child care providers for Minnesota,” Walz said. “They have stepped up. But what I recognize is they are on the edge and every day some are closing.”
State Rep. Dave Pinto, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division, said while many businesses are hurting from the economic harms of COVID-19, he considers the child care industry to be part of “critical infrastructure” that needs financial support to stay open.
“Hospitals can’t stay open to treat people can’t stay open to treat people sickened with coronavirus if their staffers have to stay home to be with their kids because there’s no child care,” Pinto said. “The same is true of the grocery stores and pharmacies and not to mention the truck drivers who deliver the products to those grocery stores and the people who package food and sort of all the things that keep us all going.”
In a news release Friday, leaders in the DFL-led House said the party is currently working on legislation to help providers.
State Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said his preferred approach is legislation to give the state more flexibility to relax requirements for staffing and standards at child care businesses. He would also allow the state to increase payment rates to providers under the Child Care Assistance Program subsidy for low-income families, as well as increase the number of absent days the state will cover for children on assistance who stay home. Abeler chairs the Senate’s Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.
The Department of Human Services typically can pay for up to 25 absent days in a calendar year, and more when a child or family has a documented medical condition. The agency is currently reviewing that policy in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and announced in a news release Friday it would pay for absences “without medical documentation.”
Abeler said CCAP, as a government-run program, is an appropriate place to direct help rather than wider financial help for all private child care businesses. “Government only has so much money,” he said. “There is not enough money to go around to cover every problem that people have.”
In the last week, Jaquith said she has struggled to meet basic needs at her child care centers in Willmar and Litchfield as people stock up on their own supplies. Thermometers and thermometer covers have been in short supply, and she has traveled “hours away” to find infant formula. But her overriding concern is having enough money to stay open. “I worry about what’s going to happen,” Jaquith said. “We’re living in a state of unknown right now.”