By Kim Saffran
Why does it matter if child-care centers stay open? Perhaps a better question would be: Why does it matter if they don’t? Staffed by essential workers, child-care centers can be seen as the glue that helps hold our communities together. Though not everyone relies on this crucial service, communities coalesce around the importance of providing a safe place where children can thrive while enabling their parents to go to work and support the family.
A good child-care center provides children an opportunity to learn about and participate in the world around them. It teaches children the importance of socialization, individualism, personal growth and self-esteem. For parents, child-care center staff act as an extension of themselves, teaching the lessons they seek to impart to their children and showing commitment, even through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
COVID has taken a toll on North Carolina’s child-care centers, said N.C. Department of Health and Human Services chief deputy secretary Susan Gale Perry.
“This pandemic has shined a spotlight on child care’s essential role and at the same time taken a significant toll on our child-care businesses,” she said. “Vacancy rates have been as high as 80 percent, and child-care operators report that without the financial support provided by the state they would not be able to operate for more than two months, while in the meantime their staff are leaving for better paying retail jobs.”
She said for decades, parents, child-care providers and policymakers have recognized the flaws in the fiscal underpinning of the child-care system nationally, resulting in high costs for families, programs that operate on the thinnest of margins, and poverty wages for child-care workers.
Statewide, NCDHHS reported that during March 2020 and March 2021, 34 centers voluntarily closed citing COVID-19 as the reason. That amounted to a loss of 956 slots for children; 20 family child-care homes closed, meaning a loss of 48 slots. Some have reopened as COVID restrictions have eased and more parents are returning to work.
The state licenses two types of child-care providers: child care centers and family child-care homes. Both rely on state funding and operating grants for continued support, and in the past 18 months or so, the families have come through with extra support.
Alison Robertson, director of the family child-care home Alison’s House, in operation since 1989, said that families in her group stayed home and didn’t bring their children but continued to cover their fees.
Anna Mercer-McLean, director of The Community School for People Under Six facility, founded in 1970, told a similar story. For two weeks, her center closed due to a parent’s positive COVID test, leading to children in the family being diagnosed. The supportive community of parents paid tuition for the two weeks their children were not in attendance.
Many parents were considered “essential workers”: health-care workers, first responders and grocery store staff to name a few. Education went online, and even parents of school-aged children had to find someone to provide care.
At the height of the pandemic, Mercer-McLean’s center cared for only 13 children, all of essential workers (the center is licensed for 65 by the state). Enrollment has slowly increased, and she hopes to be back to full enrollment by August. Currently, she is caring for 34 children, which is slightly more than half of her usual enrollment. To accommodate children of her staff and some parents who were essential workers, she temporarily closed a toddler section in her center to make room for school-age children to attend online classes.
While Robertson’s center allows five children under the age of 5, during COVID she had only one child for the first few months of the pandemic. More children returned in May and June of 2020 but she’s still operating at a lower capacity, mainly due to safety concerns. She and Mercer-McLean both ensured their staff, children and parents that health and sanitary practices were in place to keep everyone healthy. Parents of The Community School for People Under Six were required to submit health check-in forms, provided on its website. Sanitary practices were also enforced at the center.
Ensuring that children are thriving matters, too. Recently, President Joe Biden proposed free preschool for 3-year-olds. Perry, of NCDHHS, said that proposed strategies in the American Families Plan, including free preschool, would go a long way toward catching up to the decades of research that show early experiences for children up to age 5 lay the foundation for all future learning.
At this point, Mercer-McLean and Robertson are grateful that their businesses have survived. They know that many others did not. The pandemic tested their resiliency in a world of unknowns. Our future work force depends on them.