EVERETT — Enrollments at Starbright Early Learning Center are down nearly 40%.
Questions loom about what life will look like for working parents and their children in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
And a jug of hand sanitizer is going for roughly triple what it normally costs.
Still, Starbright owner Jen Alaniz considers herself lucky.
Many parents, out of work or able to do their jobs from home, have foregone day care amid the pandemic because they’re able to watch their kids themselves. But Starbright, licensed to care for about 150 children, is surviving the resulting financial squeeze, Alaniz said.
She worries, though, that other centers — new ones and those that face more competition — won’t be able to weather the economic downturn ushered by COVID-19.
Local child care centers are facing uncertain futures. Some, in dire financial straits, could be forced to close their doors. And those that remain open must navigate a host of unknowns. Will classroom learning resume in the fall? Will parents stay in their home offices long-term?
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Alaniz said. “We’re all just kind of in this waiting game.”
Still, the embattled providers are expected to play a key role now that Snohomish County has entered the second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan and many parents are returning to work.
“They are a necessary rung in the ladder for us to move toward economic recovery,” said Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, who, in an interview, called for more support for day care centers. “We’re going to need to find resources to staff child care providers and help them be successful in this new reality.”
As of Friday, there were about 100 child care programs in the county that were temporarily closed, according to Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit that tracks supply and demand for such programs across the state. That’s almost a fifth of the county’s child care supply, says a 2019 report by the organization.
Industry advocates are concerned that temporary closures due to the pandemic could become final.
A recent statewide survey of providers by Child Care Aware of Washington found that more than 40% believe they are at risk of permanently closing because of the new coronavirus’ impacts.
“Before COVID hit, they were barely making ends meet as it was,” said Deeann Puffert, the organization’s CEO.
The pandemic has exacerbated the litany of challenges that day care centers have long faced. Even before the public health crisis roiled the economy, wages were low for employees, while the costs of running a facility were rising, according to Child Care Aware.
As tuition revenue has fallen amid the crisis, costs associated with cleaning and supplies have increased, Puffert said.
Adding to the dilemma is new guidance that recommends group sizes be limited to 10 people, whether they’re children or teachers. That’s roughly half the capacity of a typical classroom, she said.
At the same time, demand for day care is likely to surge once people start to return to work — even if some centers have closed.
A child care crisis is on Washington’s horizon, Puffert said.
“If you start to see everybody opening up and parents back to work, I think it will definitely be a shortage at that point,” she said. “It’s coming, definitely coming. It’s just when.”
Some day care centers, including Alaniz’ Starbright Early Learning Center, have benefited from initiatives established by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, for example, provides small businesses with loans to encourage them to keep workers on the payroll. The loan is then forgiven if the business meets certain requirements.
The state Department of Children, Youth, and Families has doled out nearly $30 million in CARES Act funds to thousands of child care facilities across the state that have remained open during the pandemic. The vast majority of the roughly 3,700 businesses that applied for that grant money have received some, said Nicole Rose, the department’s director of eligibility and provider supports.
“Within the first 10 minutes of it being live, we had over 900 applicants,” Rose said.
Late last month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, along with two other members of Congress, introduced legislation that would create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund. The money would not only help pay providers’ operating expenses but also assist working families in affording child care, according to a news release from Murray’s office.
“We absolutely cannot overlook the critical role child care will play in our nation’s ability to recover from the current COVID-19 crisis,” the Washington Democrat said in a statement. “Right now, frontline workers are relying on access to child care in order to keep our communities safe, healthy and fed. Yet, our entire child care system is struggling to keep doors open for families.”
The state could lose as much as 29 percent of its child care supply, or space for more than 42,000 children, without adequate funding from the federal government. That’s according to a national analysis that draws on data from the Center for American Progress and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
“A lot of the in-home day cares and smaller centers have had to close, and that’s really a challenge for families, especially with small children,” said Marci Volmer, chief operating officer for the Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County.
The Boys & Girls Club is providing child care to school-aged children at 15 locations in the county.
There’s typically about 3,000 kids at those locations, but that number has dwindled to about 600, Volmer said.
“We’re spending a lot more money than we’re actually bringing in, which has made it difficult,” she said.
As revenue fell amid the pandemic, the Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County resorted to grant money and laid off more than 200 employees, Volmer said. Some have since returned to work.
The YMCA, the largest provider of before- and after-school care in the county, is also offering all-day child care for school-aged children at 10 sites across the county.
While providing care has become more expensive due to guidelines that recommend smaller classroom counts, more families are also relying on financial assistance from the YMCA of Snohomish County, said Jennifer Willows, the senior vice president and chief development officer.
Despite those pressures, the YMCA still has the ability to “scale up” to meet the demand for child care, Willows said.
“If there is a need for increased child care in the county, we can step up and do more and serve more families,” she said.
Volmer and Willows expect enrollments will increase as the county reopens.
“We anticipate the numbers will start growing pretty quickly,” Volmer said. “We want them all back. It’s more fun when all the kids are back.”
Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.
Child care resources
• To find a licensed child care provider near you, call the Child Care Aware Family Center at 1-800-446-1114 or visit childcareawarewa.org.
• During the pandemic, the YMCA of Snohomish County is offering all-day child care for school-aged children at 10 locations. The YMCA also offers early child care at its Heatherwood facility in Mill Creek. More info: ymca-snoco.org/emergency-childcare.
• The Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County is also providing all-day child care for school-aged children at 15 locations. More info: bgcsc.org.
• The city of Mountlake Terrace is offering child care for children currently enrolled in its program, children of those who are returning to work and other kids who have nowhere else to go. The program, run by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, is held at the Mountlake Terrace Recreation Pavilion from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Daily and weekly rates are available, with city residents receiving a discount. More info: 425-776-9173. Or to register, email Renee Norton at email@example.com.
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