Governor Charlie Baker ordered most child care programs across the state closed by Monday, while announcing the creation of free child care hubs to accommodate the children of those who need to go to work as the region tries to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The decision threw another curve ball to working families who are trying to weather the statewide closure of schools that already upended the daily schedules of more than 1 million Massachusetts children. But the administration was fielding increasing concerns from child care workers that their health was not being protected against children who may be asymptomatic but carrying the COVID-19 virus. In recent days, nearly 24,000 child care workers signed a petition urging the state to shut down.
“We have heard lengthy conversations about college and university response plans to COVID-19, but it is frustrating and shocking that child care programs, both centers and family child care, have been overlooked in efforts to keep our communities safe,” the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children, which represents early educators, said in a separate statement earlier this week.
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care licenses about 9,000 child care programs, residential facilities, and foster care and adoption placement agencies that serve up to 230,000 children – including 55,000 children from low-income or at-risk families whose care is subsidized by the state.
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Baker said that at-risk children would be prioritized for care in the centers that remain open. He also said the state will continue to pay day care providers for the care of those low-income children to stabilize the businesses during the shutdown, which will run through April 6.
“The providers impacted will continue to receive child care subsidies in order to ensure they are able to reopen once the crisis is over,” Baker said. The child care centers that are authorized to remain open will need to adhere to new public health regulations instituted amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier Wednesday, Bright Horizons, the Massachusetts-based chain of day care centers, announced that it plans to close many of its child care centers nationwide this week, leaving open a fraction of child care hubs to handle the families of critical workers.
Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer told the Globe that about 50 of the 60 day care centers in Massachusetts will close as the company diverts “the resources that would normally go into operating those centers to focus on serving those who are supporting the efforts around eradicating COVID-19.”
Bright Horizons had already closed the child care center based at Biogen, the biotech company in Cambridge whose off-campus conference was Massachusetts’ leading early source of the spread of COVID-19, and a Natick day care center where a parent who works at Biogen tested positive.
As Bright Horizons shifts its personnel to “child care hubs," including one aimed at employees of Partners Health Care, teachers will be offered “enhanced pay,” Kramer said.
The governor did not specify whether providers would also receive enhanced payments.
The state asked other day care providers to sign up online if they are willing to continue operations aimed at serving critical employees, including health care workers, researchers, first responders, and those who keep the transportation and food chain working.
Some child care providers are more than willing to do so, feeling they have an obligation to continue serving their families.
“I have some children here whose parents work on the front line, in hospitals,” said Dorothy Williams, who runs Dottie’s Family Child Care Inc. out of her house in Dorchester. “And then I have children who are at-risk kids.”
Williams said she is not worried about getting coronavirus, because she practices safety measures, bleaching and disinfecting on a regular basis. But she is worried about how she’s going to keep her business running in the long term.
But this week, before Baker’s announcement, many parents kept their young children home with siblings whose schools were closed. On Tuesday, only three of the 10 children enrolled came to Williams’ program, she said.
“I do have a viable business that I want to maintain and run,” she said, “and that’s going to be difficult to do without children.”
Parents who keep their children home from day care typically don’t get any reimbursement for the days they miss. Families in all sorts of child care centers typically pay a flat tuition rate for child care that reserves a spot in class does not allow discounts for vacations the children’s sick days.
From the parents’ perspective, though, the often extravagant cost of child care is stinging even more now that they’re losing the care to coronavirus. One frustrated father, who’s paying $2,000 a month for care for his toddler, said his Brookline daycare is charging full tuition during its three-week closure.
The governor said the Department of Early Education and Care had been engaged in pretty “intense conversations” for the past several days to identify the areas in greatest need of child care for essential workers and the provider organizations willing to step up. Though children do not seem to be particularly susceptible to coronavirus, they do appear to be carriers, stoking concerns that day care centers could be spreading a virus that other schools, workplaces and institutions have all closed to contain.
However, child care providers are some of the lowest-paid professionals in communities and working parents rely on them to fill the gaps particularly in times of crisis.
As a result, a coalition of child welfare advocates has been pressuring Congress for flexible emergency funding to help child programs weather the storm..
“Child care is the backbone of our nation’s economy; without it, millions of parents cannot go to work or attend school, and the U.S. economy suffers billions of dollars in losses,” wrote a coalition including the Children’s Defense Fund, United Way Worldwide, MomsRising, Indivisible, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. They called for the federal government to provide payments to programs and workers in the case of Covid-19 related closures, including backup care.
“Child care programs in every state already operate on razor thin margins and teeter on the edge of financial health,” they wrote. “Issues that may appear temporary—for instance when children are absent and providers are not reimbursed, or when programs have to pay substitutes to cover for sick staff members — could cause widespread permanent closures and result in catastrophic impacts on children, families, businesses and our economy in the short and long term.”