A child care industry already hard pressed to accommodate demand under normal conditions has been ravaged by COVID-19, said officials and providers scrambling to preserve the essential service.
Income limited by shrinking enrollment and capacity limitations, increased costs associated with heightened security measures and restrictive operational mandates are key challenges facing providers amid the pandemic.
These are piled on top of the existing hardships associated with paying high rents, navigating cumbersome licensing processes and meeting the growing needs of a community reliant on quality child care programs.
Lisa Kiesselbach, executive director at Palcare in Burlingame, bleakly assessed the landscape for child care providers who will ultimately play a key role in helping the county recover.
“If child care doesn’t work, nobody works,” she said.
For Kiesselbach, her company is earning about 25% of its normal revenue since restarting in April after a three-week shutdown following the shelter-in-place mandate in the spring.
She said the income loss is primarily due to caps on class sizes, which is limited to 12 kids per bubble under orders of health officials. Her facility has more space to operate, enough staff to work and a waitlist to join, but she cannot accommodate that demand.
“We are pretty much at the mercy of the mandates,” she said.
Yet despite the challenge, Kiesselbach said her company has been able to rely on reserves and avoid laying off any of its nearly 40 employees.
Operations are amended as her teams ramp up security protocols to assure the safety of students and families, but in all, Kiesselbach said morale at the center is relatively stable. Their collective spirits were further raised Monday, Aug. 17, with the opening of a new center accommodating toddlers and infants.
That is a very different experience from so many other local child care providers, said Christine Padilla, director of Build Up For San Mateo County’s Children.
“It’s a scary time,” said Padilla, pointing to reports suggesting many local services will not be able to weather the storm.
To that end, 56% of providers participating in a survey issued by the organization are projecting a net loss of income this fall and 48% of programs have less than one month or less cash on hand.
Bad situation made worse
Financial constraints are compounded because providers must keep staffing levels high for adequate oversight of small classes, while paying more for protective equipment and sanitation supplies, said Padilla.
With fears the lingering pandemic could claim as many as half the local programs, the report indicates the existing shortfall of 24,000 child care spaces could grow to as many as 44,000.
The county’s shortage was driven largely by the cost of living, as many families required child care so both parents could work. Affordability concerns also existed for providers struggling to pay staffs a living wage while also making big rent payments for large facilities.
The choice to shutter is often permanent for providers, said Padilla, due to the difficulties with advancing through a tangled web of licensing obligations and the high cost of finding new spaces.
Recognizing the dire circumstances, Padilla said the focus of her organization’s work shifted from looking to grow the availability of child care programs before the pandemic to merely preserving those still operating.
“We really need a huge infusion of money to sustain it,” said Padilla, nodding to the main hurdle which the industry must overcome.
In recognition, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors approved a $2 million grant program in CARES Act funding to help local providers.
Of the sum, $1.35 million will be paid to child care centers through a minimum of 25 grants worth up to $55,000. The rest will be paid to family child care homes, with a minimum of 65 grants worth up to $10,000.
“COVID has exposed how fragile the child care system is … It has been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic, in part, because they were in such a precarious situation to start,” said Supervisor Dave Pine, who worked with Supervisor Carole Groom to sponsor the county’ board’s grant program.
For his part, Pine said he is hopeful the Federal government will approve a stimulus package that will grant the industry additional relief. But in the absence of financial aid, he noted providers are largely at the mercy of the virus.
“With the county program, we are casting out a life preserver and what we really need is a big boat,” he said.
Appreciative for the contribution, Padilla projected that as much as $16 million was needed to meet the needs of local providers.
Sarah Kinahan, coordinator with the Child Care Partnership Council, succinctly gauged the state of the industry.
“They are extremely concerned across the board,” said Kinahan, whose organization is a joint initiative between the county board and county Office of Education.
‘I know every single kid’
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as Kinahan has been inspired to see the ways some providers have bent their services to meet the emerging needs of a school community altered by COVID-19.
Those that can will refocus on a new set of students, said Kinahan, likely accommodating an older group who must remain home on remote learning assignments rather than return to school campus.
Similarly, she shared her admiration for the many providers who remain committed to offering an essential service — despite the exigent conditions.
“I’ve been really impressed with how programs have taken on the conditions for health and safety and still want to do this work,” she said.
Kiesselbach is one of those people. The director whose responsibilities prior to the pandemic circled largely around reporting to fellow administrators shifted to meeting students at the door of the facility, helping them through safety and sanitation protocols and ushering them to their classroom.
“I know every single kid by name,” she said.
Moved to laughter by the silver lining, Kiesselbach detailed the resilient perspective required to survive a uniquely difficult stretch.
“We are all getting through it,” she said.
A kindred spirit, Padilla shared a similar perspective.
“I do feel optimistic that we will pull through this but I think it is going to take a lot of work,” she said.
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