Childcare centers struggle through the pandemic
Declining enrollment and increased costs batter providers
As the pandemic began last spring, enrollment at Footprints Christian Children’s Center shrank from 107 students to about 20. The facility cares for infants to school-age children in Lancaster, Calif. Half its original size, the preschool class kept rehearsing songs and a skit for the spring graduation ceremony. Director Tammy Damon borrowed caps and gowns from a friend, hung a backdrop, and streamed the ceremony for parents over Zoom. COVID-19 cases have only shut down the center once so far, and a Paycheck Protection Program loan helped pay staff. But Damon still worries.
“Making sure we’re going to meet payroll and keep the school open—those are huge challenges,” she said. “You worry every time a child walks through the door. Did they bring in the virus? Are they sick?”
The pandemic has pummeled child care providers with low enrollment and extra expenses. A December survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) found 56 percent of centers were losing money every day they stayed open. Families that need two incomes can struggle if they can’t find someone to care for children, and lawmakers have pushed through a wave of COVID-19 funding to help these providers survive.
Christian child care centers offer not just supervision and early academics, but spiritual formation. Children’s Ark Academy in Georgia quotes Proverbs 22:6 in its mission statement: “Train up a child in the way he should go.” The staff tell Bible stories and teach students to recite the Lord’s prayer, Associate Director Joy Hill said. The addition of masks and extra cleaning hasn’t changed those central routines.
High labor costs mean child care businesses regularly run on slim margins. The pandemic has cut into their budgets further. At Heartland Christian Daycare in Kansas City, Mo., enrollment dropped from 32 students to eight. The facility stayed open to care for the children of essential workers, but let go two staff members and relied on a Paycheck Protection Program loan and donations from its supporting church to stay afloat, Director Jane Alexander said. Enrollment has crept back up to 19 students.
Additionally, some 91 percent of these facilities are spending extra on cleaning supplies, according to the NAEYC survey. Damon said stores limited purchases to one or two cans of Lysol and Clorox wipes per trip, not enough to meet Footprints’ needs. She visited swap meets to buy more secondhand, sometimes marked up from the store price by $2 per canister.
Providers’ struggle affects the larger workforce. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau reported about 1 in 5 working-age adults said they couldn’t go to a job because the pandemic made it difficult for them to find someone to care for their children.
As child care centers struggle to stay afloat, the government has sent a burst of cash with more on the way. The CARES Act provided $3.5 billion to parents and day cares, and Paycheck Protection Program loans helped centers cover payroll costs. Congress in December passed another $10 billion for providers, which advocates said was a good start but not enough. Some states, like Colorado and Pennsylvania, are adding their own aid to the mix. If passed, President Joe Biden’s stimulus package will send $25 billion to providers and $15 billion more to help parents pay enrollment fees. Biden has also promised to expand tax credits and child care subsidies for parents long term.
For now, Damon said Footprints is applying for extra grants and saving money on food by accepting meals from the local school district. She holds open houses for prospective parents on Zoom, carrying her laptop around a classroom. A combination of new and returning students has brought enrollment back to about 90 students, but Damon still frets when parents pull their child because their family has been exposed to COVID-19.
“Every time you lose a child, you hope you gain one,” she said. “You just don’t know whether you’re going to get those kids back at all, and that’s a scary thing.”
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