With public and private schools already shut down, the news that day-care centers would close Monday because of the coronavirus did not surprise Tom Kelly. What stung was the final line of his day-care provider’s e-mail, which told him where he should mail his next check.
The steep bill for child care — $650 a week for Kelly’s toddler and preschooler — must be paid even when the service is not provided because of a public health emergency. The owner of his day care promises to shave costs in the future but didn’t reduce the current bills.
“It feels like we’re not really being met halfway,” said Kelly, noting that his wife, a schoolteacher, was providing child care for their children in their Norwood home. “You’ve got to keep paying. My wife’s doing the work.”
Beyond its threat to public health, the spread of coronavirus is causing countless complications for small businesses and workers. Few are thornier than child care, an area where the income of early educators — often some of the lowest-paid professionals in a community — is dependent on many other parents getting to work.
State officials are trying to strike a balance that is sensitive to both, urging providers and parents to negotiate compromises. The attorney general’s office, which handles consumer complaints, received 58 by Friday, and advised parents to review the contracts they signed with their day-care providers. But that may require them to keep paying for service they aren’t currently receiving.
Many centers rely on tuition allotted in weekly or monthly payments that are due whether or not the service is used, like a gym membership.
That hit parents hard last week, when they got word that Governor Charlie Baker was ordering the closure of child-care centers across the state, cutting off care to 230,000 children, and that reimbursement checks would not be in the mail. That’s far more to ask than absorbing the sunk costs of a random snow day, noted Farokh Karani, a Chelmsford father whose small day-care chain is charging full tuition while closed.
“A 2-year-old and a 4-year-old at home while mom and dad are trying to work remotely from home — and we have to essentially make a payment which is greater than a mortgage," said Karani.
He praised a larger day-care chain, Little Sprouts Early Education and Child Care, which stopped charging parents for the time being but kept paying teachers and is now asking families individually if they can contribute to teachers’ pay through the shutdown.
Policies vary at different day-care chains and providers, with some giving families credit for weeks in March they won’t be able to use. Bright Horizons, the Massachusetts-based chain of child-care centers, halted billing for all clients, and is trying to reopen some facilities as state-authorized emergency child-care hubs for essential workers, including hospital personnel and transportation workers.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Children’s Center, which serves state transportation workers and others in the Park Plaza area, was shut down all last week with parents still paying the full tuition rate — from $372 each week for a preschooler to $565 each week for an infant.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Transportation Children’s Center executive director Laurie Morelli explained that the board of directors kept charging tuition to continue paying the teaching staff.
“We felt that during times like this we need to come together as a community and show empathy towards one another,” she wrote, “The same love and care that the teachers have given our kids all these years.”
The center’s board is seeking other sources of funding, she said, and examining “potential scenarios for tuition reduction that would enable the Center to still pay the teachers and also provide some financial relief for the families.”
Recognizing the uncertain nature of the crisis, many parents are trying to be understanding.
"The teachers care about my children. They’ve taken very good care of them, and I want the teachers to be taken very good care of as well,” said Megan Whitmore, a South Boston mother of two whose children attend the Labouré Child Care Center. “But it would be nice to have a little bit of transparency about what percentage of my fees actually goes to the teachers’ salaries — or maybe, potentially, some reduced fees.”
Last week, Catholic Charities, which runs her child-care center as well as other day cares, said families would still be required to pay full tuition. But on Thursday, senior leadership met and reversed course, deciding to "defer weekly billing to families until we have concluded our reassessment,” Christine Coffey, Catholic Charities’ director of marketing communications, said in an e-mail. “We understand the families we serve with child-care services are also dealing with personal financial consequences, and we appreciate their understanding in these challenging times.”
That was welcome news to Whitmore, a hospital physical therapist who is not yet certain whether she will be able to use emergency child care being established by the state next week.
Jen Quinn, the owner of the day care that Kelly’s children attend, said she is striving for flexibility by staggering the discounts she is offering families over the coming months. (Their tuition will be cut in half for two weeks in May and June, she said.)
“I’m trying to make it work for everybody, keep my teachers afloat and not ask too much of my parents,” said Quinn, who owns three Sunshine child-care centers in Walpole serving 251 children. “At the same time, I’m trying to make sure we’re supporting our parents. We know they’re … trying to get their job done at home but now their kids are home with them.”
Her teachers, who are hourly-paid workers, are trying to provide the young children with some continuity — hosting virtual live “circle times,” in which youngsters meet for show-and-tell activities, and sending home videos and projects.
On Friday afternoon, Quinn sent parents another message assuring them that if her centers are unable to reopen after two weeks, she’ll stop charging — a move that comforted Kelly.
Like everyone else, Quinn doesn’t know how they will manage financially or logistically in the long run.
“The whole thing is honestly insane,” she said. “It’s nuts.”
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, meanwhile, said select child-care centers will provide free emergency care for the children of employees who have to go to work beginning Monday. The state will also try to stabilize day-care providers by continuing to pay the subsidies it offers for the care of low-income students.
US Representative Katherine Clark — along with Massachusetts Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Joe Kennedy and several other members of Congress — is calling for the federal government to help fill the gap, proposing $21 billion in child-care funding to support states, families, and child-care providers.
“We want them included in all the things we are doing for small businesses in the next stimulus package,” Clark said on Saturday. “We’re asking that their ongoing operating costs while they are closed be covered by the federal government, that we eliminate co-payments and tuition for families during this crisis and that we provide paid leave for educators and fully provide the funding needed for providers to cover this cost.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.