Last Day Cares Standing

Less than a week after New York shuttered the largest school district in the nation, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all non-essential businesses must close, too. Among the exceptions to his edict were child-care programs, which he dubbed essential, along with grocers and doctor’s offices.  

That doesn’t mean most child-care programs are open now. Even before Cuomo’s order went into effect, many child-care centers had already shut down. But among those that made the difficult decision to remain open were many of the smallest in-home care programs, often called family daycares. “We look around and everyone else is closing. We’re the last people standing,” says Gladys Jones, owner of Ga Ga Group Family Daycare in Staten Island and founder of Early Childhood Educators (ECE) On the Move,, a loose network of about 500 New York City home-based providers.                            

Jones and other child-care providers expected that with schools and so many other centers closed, the demand for their services would be higher than ever. Instead, their programs have been eerily empty — a phenomenon happening across the U.S.

Despite a swelling share of parents who must continue working but suddenly have no support, many child-care programs have found themselves severely under-enrolled and some have begun closing as a result. Data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and Early Care & Education Consortium suggests that programs around the country lost nearly 70% of their daily attendance in one week during the pandemic, with many saying they could not last a week without getting paid. Providers are reporting on social media that families are keeping their kids home  because parents are losing jobs, working from home, or simply out of fear.

“I thought my phone would be ringing off the hook, and it’s super quiet,” said Milagros Carbajal who runs M&M 24 Hour Daycare in the Bronx.

This low enrollment is leaving daycares in a precarious position: Should they continue operating during the pandemic as many governments have encouraged them to do, with very little safety guidance and at a risk to themselves and their employees? And will they survive the other end of this crisis at all?

"I closed my daycare because the families are all self isolating,” tweeted Helen Marvelene Fagg, who runs a small family daycare for seven children in Athens, Tennessee. “Some families quit due to the coronavirus. I’m trying to suspend my accounts for a few months. This is crazy!"

The circumstance is particularly precarious for family daycares, many of them staples in poor and working-class neighborhoods where home-based child care is sometimes the only form of licensed care around. Their small size and flexibility about hours makes these programs particularly well-positioned to help with this crisis, says Jones. Many already care for the children of first responders and essential service workers such as hospital staff, janitors, and grocers. Several offer night care.

But they are also particularly vulnerable to permanent closure, with many operating on shoestring budgets, paying themselves and their teachers near-poverty level wages, and staying open as much out of financial necessity as out of a desire to help. “If we don’t offer our services, we don’t get paid,” says Bernadette Lombay of B-Happy Daycare in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx. (Other child care centers, meanwhile, have continued to charge families even during the period they are closed.)

“If we’re going to be the only people out there able to help people go to work, we need support.”

Privately, providers vent about operating under crisis circumstances with little clarity or direction. The ECE On the Move listserv has been bursting with questions: Will the state pay them for enrolled children receiving subsidized care who stay home? Normally they are paid only for days that children attend their programs. With local stores ransacked, how will programs stay stocked with essentials like milk, bleach, and baby wipes? How do you get toddlers to stop putting things in their mouth and babies to stop sneezing on you? If you don’t have health insurance or sick leave — as many child-care workers do not — who will be there for you and your families if you fall ill?

“These women are scared,” says Jones. “I know of a provider in Far Rockaway who is 83. We can’t just use these people and throw them away.”

Advocates and leaders in the child-care industry are calling on the federal government to provide emergency assistance to child-care programs, warning that without that boost, much of the sector may be permanently shuttered. One recent proposal called for infusing the sector with $50 billion in emergency stimulus funding. The federal economic stimulus bill passed this week did provide some financial relief for the child-care industry, including $3.5 billion in grant funding for emergency workers’ care, but advocacy groups say far more is needed in the next stimulus just to serve current emergency needs, let alone prevent permanent closures.

For now, most decisions about how best to help these programs and the families who need them are left to state and local leaders — and providers themselves.

Several states and institutions are experimenting with how to narrow the enrollment gap by connecting child-care centers with workers who need them most. In Washington, D.C., Children’s National Hospital is creating its own database for connecting its workers to available in-home child care centers. In New York, in an effort to bump their enrollment, over 100 members of Jones’s group, ECE on the Move, have responded to requests from the city and a union serving health-care works to let them know they have plenty of room to take in the children of first responders.  

In drawing up guidelines for these still-running businesses, state and city government officials grapple to balance the urgent needs of first responders needing child care with efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Local responses have been as varied as the states themselves, ranging from a handful of states demanding that all child-care programs close, to an Oklahoma official telling,providers “it is critical that you do all you can to remain open.”

Most states fall somewhere in between, says Dan Wuori, director of early learning at the The Hunt Institute in North Carolina, which on Tuesday launched a website tracking state directives and policies regarding early education and the pandemic in the hopes that government officials and policymakers can learn from each other and identify best practices.   

Ohio and Illinois, for example, are requiring that child-care programs remaining open during the pandemic apply for a special license.

Like New York, many other states have identified child-care programs as “essential” businesses that may keep running even as other businesses are ordered to close, and some urge prioritizing the families of first responders. So far only one state — Virginia — has suggested in a letter to the provider community that child-care providers themselves are first responders. Others are aiming to soften the financial blow by providing benefits that many child-care workers don’t typically have, such as paid sick leave, free treatment for uninsured workers who test positive for the coronavirus, or by paying subsidies. Vermont said it will cover lost tuition that child-care centers would have received if they hadn’t closed.

Wuori says it’s become a common practice for states to ease requirements for child-care programs still operating, allowing families receiving subsidy who are enrolled part-day to switch to full-day, or loosening licensing regulations.

One question up for vigorous debate is how many children a program can safely take in during the pandemic. In New York, child-care programs may apply for waivers allowing them to serve more children than their licenses specify. Meanwhile, several other states are looking to curb — not expand — group sizes in child care in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

While there is not data available regarding characteristics of child-care programs that have chosen to remain open these past few weeks, early education experts say that because of their small size and flexibility, family child-care programs are particularly well suited for this moment of social distancing. But their size is also one of a number of factors that has made family centers so vulnerable to closure even before the pandemic.

A toxic combination of increased housing costs, increased minimum wage, competition from new, free preschool programs in schools and centers, and stagnant reimbursement rates have caused many of these programs that are staples in poor and working-class neighborhoods to shutter. Nationwide, nearly half of small home-based child care businesses have closed since 2005 with few government attempts at course correction.

If nothing else, this pandemic is putting front and center the needs of this often-overlooked workforce. Some family child-care providers see in the crisis an opportunity to show officials and policymakers how this sector is the backbone of many communities; how women who open their homes to neighborhood children for poverty-level wages are there for families when it matters most; that cities simply cannot afford to lose them.

“This crisis is a prime example of why we’re still needed,” says Carbajal who runs the 24-hour-daycare in the Bronx.   

Jones of ECE On the Move is encouraged that over the past two weeks she and her peers have huddled on conference calls with top city and state officials. Last week, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer asked ECE on the Move to provide a list for what New York family child care will need to operate effectively during the pandemic. What the group created — a collection of many provisions that states have passed individually, but not as a comprehensive package — could be the blueprint cities need. Among ECE on the Move’s asks: that providers be recognized as emergency responders; that those remaining open receive incentive pay and emergency supplies such as food, cleaning supplies and protective gear; that those who close have access to paid sick leave; that providers and their families who fall sick be guaranteed medical care; and that all family child care be paid for children receiving subsidized child-care, even when parents have since decided to keep them home.

“If we’re going to be the only people out there able to help people go to work, we need support,” says Jones.

About the Author

Kendra Hurley

Kendra Hurley is a New York City-based writer and researcher. Her work has helped shape policy in areas including early education, homeless services, and child welfare. 

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