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‘It’s a start’: How the Legislature’s COVID-19 bill aims to help Minnesota child care providers

Under the coronavirus aid package passed by the Minnesota Legislature Thursday, child care providers can apply for a $4,500 monthly grant, with larger centers eligible for an additional monthly grant of up to $15,500, based on capacity.

One of the rooms at the Stay ’n Play Child Care Center in Willmar.
Courtesy of Stay ’n Play Child Care Center
Under the bill, child care providers that are currently operating can apply for a $4,500 monthly grant.
As dropping enrollment from the COVID-19 pandemic crushed the budgets of child care facilities this month, providers and supporters sent nearly 4,000 letters to Minnesota lawmakers asking for money they said was necessary to stay open and serve the families of essential workers.

On Thursday, the Legislature responded by approving $30 million in grants for child care centers and in-home providers as part of a larger spending package aimed at mitigating the economic and public health damage of coronavirus.

“We have heard, every one of us, the challenge that (child care providers) are facing, and yet the utmost importance that they have in caring for our children and allowing their parents to go to work and be those first-line defenders,” state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It is essential that this support get out to them.”

Under the bill, child care providers that are currently operating can apply for a $4,500 monthly grant. They’re eligible for an extra $1,000 if the program serves children who have special needs, don’t speak English or if the service is open during nonstandard hours like nights and weekends. Larger child care centers that care for 15 or more children can get an additional monthly grant up to $15,500, based on capacity.

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Clare Sanford, government relations chair for the Minnesota Child Care Association, which represents center-based providers, said they had initially asked lawmakers for $60 million, but that was before an executive order from the governor allowing state officials more flexibility to keep paying state subsidies for low-income families when children miss class time.

“The emergency aid won’t save the child care industry of course,” Sanford said in an email. “But could be enough to help a skeleton crew of providers remain open and able to continue prioritizing children of emergency workers.”

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
Gov. Tim Walz has repeatedly asked child care providers to stay open during the pandemic, but many of the businesses say it has put a strain on their budgets. Because of requirements for small staff-to-student ratios and other expenses, the industry already runs on thin margins and can offer meager pay to workers despite tuition that often compares with the price of college. Minnesota has also been suffering from a shortage of child care across the state. The businesses serve children age 4 and younger.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many parents who are working from home or laid off have kept children at home, cutting into those tuition payments. Businesses say their costs have also risen to keep the facilities extra clean.

“Two weeks ago we were working on the child care crisis, that there wasn’t enough providers, and we were trying to figure out how to fill the gaps and get more slots available,” said Kristin Jaquith, director of the Stay ’n Play Child Care Centers in Litchfield and Willmar. “And now, today, I’m trying to figure out how to fill enough slots for us to stay open.”

Jaquith said the new state payments won’t help businesses reopen after the outbreak if they have already been forced to close. The money may not help address all expenses either, like property taxes, Jaquith said. But for a business still running like hers, a grant could help meet operating costs like staff salaries.

Stay ’n Play normally employs 55 people, but that’s been cut by about half as student enrollment dropped. That enrollment declined even further following Walz’s stay-at-home order, Jaquith said. A class for one-year-olds at her Litchfield center normally has 16 kids. On Thursday, it had five.

In an interview last week, Jaquith said she could operate for about two weeks with so few children. She has been forgoing her salary and many families are paying a half-rate to hold their spots at the center. Now she says the business is “hanging in there, but I don’t know for how long.”

Will the state money help? “It’s not enough to help everybody but it’s something,” Jaquith said.

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Karen DeVos, owner of the Little Learners child care center in Ada, said that on Wednesday she asked families who aren’t considered essential workers under the governor’s order to stay home, and she has stepped up coronavirus prevention measures like screening the temperatures of children. Those steps may not have been possible if she didn’t expect to get some financial help from the state. “It allows us to give a little bit of relief to those families that aren’t currently working and aren’t bringing in income,” DeVos said.

State Rep. Dave Pinto
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Dave Pinto
The money may not be enough for all child care businesses, “but it’s a start,” she said.

The child care money was part of a $330 million spending bill. In a statement Thursday, state Rep. Dave Pinto, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division, said the money “will help our state’s child care providers stay in business and continue caring for the children of health care professionals and other essential workers.”

“Early care and learning has rightly been identified as a critical sector in Minnesota’s fight against COVID-19,” Pinto said.

In a call with reporters Thursday, Walz said the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations around the state have created their own $300,000 grant program specifically to help child care providers outside of the Twin Cities metro area. “This is a really critical one to keeping child care up, running, and safe,” Walz said of the Legislature’s cash infusion for the industry.