In ordinary times, navigating childcare has been a challenge for working families for decades. COVID-19 has increased the difficulty seismically, sending shockwaves not just through households, but businesses, communities and providers alike.
Last week the Wisconsin Policy Forum reported that as of May, nearly 40% of childcare providers in the state had closed as a result of fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, with some counties losing more than half their providers.
Some of those shutdowns will be permanent, while others might just be temporary. But sorting out the long-term prospects remains murky.
“Things change every hour,” says Erin Arango-Escalante, administrator for the Division of Early Care and Education at the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF). “It depends on the region or even the community that we’re in.”
As the pandemic continues to surge, ensuring that working parents have adequate access to childcare is one of several critical elements to successfully restarting the economy. It’s also tied in with whether schools are able to open up in the fall.
The need for childcare isn’t limited to preschoolers; if school districts open for in-person classes in some form, working parents may need care for school-age children during non-school hours.
For now, forecasting how many closed childcare providers will be able to reopen depends on unknown factors, but DCF has begun making some educated guesses.
“There seems to be about a third of all providers that have closed and most likely will not reopen,” Arango-Escalante tells the Wisconsin Examiner. Those providers appear to account for about a third of all the available child care slots in the state, she adds.
Southeast Wisconsin impact
Milwaukee and the surrounding counties have the largest supply of childcare providers in Wisconsin. They’re also the part of the state that has seen some of the greatest pressure on childcare.
“We’re seeing more of the larger group centers close, particularly in the Southeast region,” says Arango-Escalante. Licensed group programs are those that are permitted to accommodate at least nine children up to more than 200.
In Southeast Wisconsin, 61% of the providers in the licensed group category were closed, either temporarily or permanently, as of May, she says — accounting for 41,000 slots for children. That has left just 39% of that group of providers still open as of May.
By contrast, in the entire state, 84% of family in-home providers, who are limited to caring for no more than eight children, were still operating as of May, with about 11,000 slots. Those include two groups of regulated providers: certified and licensed.
While other parts of the state, such as the northern and central regions, may have fewer facilities closing, they also had fewer to start with. But proportionally, some of them are parts where as many as half — or more — of providers have closed, the Policy Forum report observes.
Most providers that have closed, whether temporarily or permanently, have reported they’ve lost many clients, people who have either been laid off or reassigned to work at home by their employers and who decide they can’t afford or don’t need childcare, Arango-Escalante says. A small number closed when they were forced to shut down after a staff member tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
“The data has been suggesting nationwide that providers cannot go for more than two weeks without having children present and having some revenue, because they run on such razor-thin margins,” she says.
In projecting which providers might reopen, the state has been relying on the reports produced by a federally funded program of financial assistance.
The state’s Child Care Counts program is using $51 million from Wisconsin’s allotment under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to bolster providers three different ways: to help cover childcare costs for families of workers identified as “essential” during the pandemic; to help providers boost the pay of employees as an incentive to keep them on the job; and to enable providers that were forced to close to reopen, with the funds going to cover reopening costs along with staff pay and reimbursements for families.
Providers who accept the grants are obliged to reopen within 30 days of getting the funds. But even accepting the CARES funding doesn’t allow for certainty in discerning which childcare providers will be able to remain open. Already some providers that had been approved for grants under the program have returned the money.
“We’ve had a number of providers who have said, ‘We can’t do it — take the money back,” Arango-Escalante says.
Some of the closed providers run just during the school year, and have indicated they would plan to open up if school does resume in person in the fall.
For childcare providers, “this is a very hot topic because, for school-age kids, they are that wraparound support” at the beginning or end of the school day, she says. “Child care providers also don’t know if they are holding slots for school-age children or not.”
Of the state’s 4,121 childcare providers, more than 90% — 3,719 — are permitted to care for school-age children, according to DCF, although that does not mean all of them serve that age group.
The question of whether school will reopen in person is directly connected to the prospects for some childcare centers to reopen. If the normal school day is changed, that could mean greater need for childcare during the non-classroom hours. Or, parents who continue to have the option of working at home might choose to forgo child care, as many did this spring.
Still another challenge that DCF has been hearing from childcare providers about is staffing. “We were seeing a staffing and workforce issue prior to COVID — and now you really see it,” Arango-Escalante says. Wages in the industry have been an obstacle to retaining workers who “can make more at the Kwik Trip down the road” in many instances.
On Tuesday, Wisconsin Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul joined colleagues from 20 other states and the District of Columbia in a letter calling on the U.S. Senate to fund at least $50 billion in aid for childcare centers across the country.
“These systems have long suffered from a broken model, where parents pay too much and educators make too little,” states the letter, led by Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Maura Healey.
Collaboration for survival
As school districts, parents and childcare providers themselves look ahead to the fall, Arango-Escalante says three issues will be front and center: Space, staffing and transportation. Will providers need space to keep children further apart from one another to observe social distancing requirements and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus? Will they be able to find enough staff? And will they have access to transportation so children can get to and from their homes?
That’s where collaboration that includes childcare providers as well as school districts and others in the community will be important, she explains. Schools limiting attendance of their own students might have extra space that childcare providers could use. Childcare providers may have their own vans or other transport options, but also might have to depend on other sources for those.
Her office is urging childcare providers and school districts to work together closely to see how they might support each other. And community business leaders can play a role, too, she adds, whether in providing tuition subsidies that keep childcare affordable for workers while enabling higher pay in order to keep childcare staff on the job, or helping providers with the extra costs of regular sanitation of their facilities.
“We need to be creative because childcare teachers are the workforce behind the workforce. If they’re not there, there’s going to be trouble,” Arango-Escalante says. “It’s going to take not just the childcare community, but beyond to ensure that we can reopen our economy in a safe way for children, families and communities.”