As COVID-19 spread in Minnesota and Gov. Tim Walz shut down public life, the child care industry struggled from lack of income as children stayed home with their parents.
But even during rocky economic times, which have led businesses of all stripes to close their doors over the last five months, some Minnesotans have managed a surprising feat: opening a new child care program.
State licensing data from the Department of Human Services shows more than 100 family child care providers have been authorized to open their doors since March 17, when Walz closed down bars and restaurants in the state and many businesses started shifting to remote work. Another two dozen child care centers, which are larger and serve more children than family providers, have been licensed by DHS in the same time period.
For some providers, the pandemic was another difficult hurdle they managed to overcome. For others, though, COVID-19 made the industry more attractive because of poor job prospects elsewhere.
Brandie Folken, an owner of Brandie’s Little Bear Learning Center in Eveleth, opened her doors March 23, just two days before Walz announced his first stay-home order.
Folken said she had been working for three years to get the center going in St. Louis County, part of a region with a persistent child care shortage that has hurt the economy. Previously Folken and another business partner Brandie Peterson ran smaller family child care programs in the area.
They purchased a city-owned building in Eveleth and were able to get a grant — and business advice — from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, a state-run program that uses money from taconite mining to help spur economic development. The United Way also pitched in $40,000 and the mining company Cleveland Cliffs donated $50,000 for playground equipment.
For an industry that runs on slim profit margins, up-front costs can be a substantial barrier to starting a program. “Without those components there’s no way that this really would have been successful as it has,” Folken said.
Folken said when they opened — after convincing hesitant state inspectors to come approve the building as Walz closed bars and restaurants — they had room for 142 children. The first week, 28 kids were signed up but only six kids actually came to the program, Folken said. For a comparison, her past business as a family provider was licensed for 14 children.
Folken said the child care center has remained open through it all, in part because she felt it was important to keep operating after persuading state inspectors to travel to her business and approve it, and because another child care center in the area had closed. While Folken’s business was not eligible for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program because it wasn’t open by a federal deadline, they did get money from other state, local and federal grants.
Since the stay-home order was lifted, enrollment has picked up. Now, about 73 children are at the Little Bear Learning Center. “If somebody asked me if I’d do this again, I don’t know that I’d say yes,” Folken said. But she praised her business partner and employees and added: “I love it and I’m proud of myself for doing it.”
Leah Mathsen started a family child care business in Ada during the middle of May, which is right around when Walz ended most stay-home restrictions.
After working a slow job at a bank, Mathsen said she considered opening a child care program. That became a reality when she moved and found she could rent a neighboring house to run the business out of.
Mathsen said she was nervous to open her program, not knowing if she would get families during the pandemic. As of now, she has only three full-time children at the business, including one of her own. But the parents of the children she serves are essential workers and needed child care in an area where openings, particularly for infants, are hard to find Mathsen said.
Child care is also one business that was never shut down by the state. “There’s not a ton of job openings right now because our town is quite small,” Mathsen said.
Across the state, experts fear the pandemic has exacerbated child care shortages and made the job more difficult. Many providers are hanging on with help from loans, grants and personal sacrifices.
The few providers who have opened likely won’t make a huge dent in existing shortages. In 2019, the state reported there were 1,700 licensed child care centers and more than 7,600 family child care programs.
But the new businesses remain a bright spot during the COVID-19 era. Folken said even if 10 child care centers opened in her area they might have a shortage crisis. That’s one reason she opened. “The community needs it,” she said.