During normal times, Tracy Carter’s DeSoto child care center, A Heart To Give, serves around 60 children, from infants to elementary students. Typically, Carter has a staff of 12 full-time and part-time employees to manage the bustle.
But as the COVID-19 crisis has escalated in recent days, A Heart To Give’s enrollment has plummeted. Last week, Carter’s center averaged 18 children, whose parents work in “essential businesses,” mostly in the medical field. Only 10 students showed up Friday.
While those with essential jobs are still relying on the child care system as they continue to work, many working parents are increasingly being given the option to work from home. For some, the dilemma is whether to keep paying for child care if your child isn’t attending.
If parents leave the child care system in droves — either forced out by unemployment or by choice — it’s likely many child care operators won’t be able to stay in business.
For Carter, the downturn has forced her to tell some of her employees to stay home, and is splitting up hours for other workers “so they can get some sort of a check.”
“When they’re only working four hours a day, it’s hard to keep morale high,” she said. “I try my best, but I only can do so much.”
Withdrawing your child to save money while you work from home could mean that your child’s teacher is let go.
“Early childhood centers and child care businesses — it’s a very fragile industry that runs on a razor-thin margin, to begin with,” said Tori Mannes, the president, and CEO of ChildCareGroup.
ChildCareGroup operates eight centers in the Dallas area, partners with several area school districts on early education, and manages child care subsidy programs for 600 other providers across the state.
“It’s a high-cost business, filled with people who are doing amazing work, but at very low wages. And I’m not sure that very many [operators] at all have any type of cash reserves.”
In February, prior to the crisis, there were an estimated 1.1 million children at 17,279 licensed and registered child care centers and homes, according to statistics from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. As of March 27, the number of operations had fallen to 13,325, a decline of nearly 23%. Over three-fourths of those closures indicated that they were due to COVID-19.
According to a national survey of 6,000 members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, conducted March 12-16, 30% of child care centers said they couldn’t survive being closed for more than two weeks without “significant public investment and support.”
Nearly half of those who responded said that they were already losing income because parents could not pay tuition and a quarter responded that if they closed, they didn’t know if they could reopen without support.
Several parents who contacted The Dallas Morning News said they were continuing to pay their tuition even though their children were no longer attending.
The reason? To help keep businesses afloat, and help ensure teachers and staff kept getting paychecks.
Andrew Harlow and his wife, Megann, pulled their two children from their daycare, Golden Acorn in Allen since they are now working from home.
But, Harlow, a coach and teacher at Allen High School, is continuing to pay the full tuition rate as a placeholder for his 10-month-old and 5-year old, “trying to do my part to keep them going.”
“I don’t know how much longer we can do that, however,” Harlow said. “We haven’t been given any other options at the moment. But, I’ll probably be reaching out to them soon to see what they can do to help us out.
“Never know what tomorrow brings, with everyone’s situation changing day by day.”
Travis Hudson, who works in communications at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (and is a former Dallas Morning News web editor), offered a similar sentiment.
He and his partner, Amanda York, have continued to pay for their two children — a 4-year-old and a 9-month-old — at their West Dallas and North Oak Cliff child care centers, despite keeping them home. Both providers, the Yorktown Spanish School and Cliff Temple Child Development Center, are currently closed, although Yorktown was open for one day last week.
Hudson said he’s “absolutely comfortable” continuing to pay, as long as the staff gets paid. He’s planning to ask for more assurances when the providers bill him for the month of April.
Franklin Elam, a finance manager from Far North Dallas, said that he and his wife, Stephanie, a nurse at Richardson High School, would continue paying full daycare costs for their youngest child for the foreseeable future, even though the provider — Primrose School of Richardson — has offered parents the ability to pay half-rates to keep their spot.
“This school houses a lot of first responders’ kids during the day,” Elam wrote. “Our main reason to keep paying is so that the school can still compensate the staff. Really, whatever allows for the school to remain open so that the parents needing access to the daily care still have access, we will do — as long as it is within our means.”
He added that he didn’t see the pandemic “as a money-saving opportunity.”
“We are still paying for the child care service, the swim lessons, the dance lessons, etc., even if we aren’t receiving the service, as long as the company will allow us to,” he said. “I have these things in our personal budget, so as long as we are able, we will still try and do our part to help these businesses stay afloat.”
How each child care provider funds their operation varies widely, Mannes said. Most rely solely on parents paying full tuition, while others rely on public funding, either federal Head Start dollars or state child care subsidies, distributed by the Texas Workforce Commission and local boards. In the current climate, providers relying on state and federal funding will probably have more security, allowing them to keep their staffs intact.
For ChildCareGroup, which runs Early Head Start and Head Start centers, operation at those centers has been shut down, but staff members are working remotely, conducting virtual home visits and instruction, Mannes said.
For Carter, about half of her families were on government assistance. With the loss of many tuition-paying families, she’s reduced her payroll. But there are still mortgage payments, payments on two vans and utilities.
“My main concern is the safety of the children,” she said. “But also, I need to make sure my staff gets some money. I don’t get paid right now.”
Help, however, could be on the way.
On Friday, within the $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package passed by Congress, several provisions would provide significant relief for child care providers, including:
- $3.5 billion in Child Care and Development Block Grants for immediate assistance to child care providers.
- $750 million in grants for Head Start programs.
- Allowing for-profit and nonprofit child care businesses with fewer than 500 employees the opportunity to apply for up to $10 million in small business loans, of which 8 weeks of payroll, rent or mortgage, and utilities would be eligible for forgiveness.
Carter said that she has been praying for help for small businesses like hers so that she could “help people get back to working.”
“All I have is my faith right now,” Carter said.
In normal times, when children would be out for an extended period of time, Carter would allow parents to pay half-rate in order to hold their spot — a practice that’s fairly common in the child care industry.
But she’s doubtful she will ask parents for that in the coming days and weeks.
“Because of the economy right now,” Carter said. “They might not even have that to do that. So if I’m asking for it, that’s on me. The main thing is that people know that they are supported in every way. If you don’t have it, that’s all right. We’re not in this for the money anyway; we’re in it for the kids.”