Struggling child care providers across Massachusetts say their prolonged closure for the coronavirus pandemic may result in their economic ruin, leaving working parents in the lurch.
The owners of child care centers, already closed for six weeks, are growing increasingly desperate, saying their small businesses are on the verge of collapse. And they’re concerned that Governor Charlie Baker is talking about reopening the state for business in mid-May though he has ordered their businesses closed through the end of June.
“As an industry, we’re confused why child care centers are being required to close for an additional month and a half," said Christopher Vuk, founder of Rock and Roll Daycare, which has five locations in Cambridge. "Who’s going to take care of the babies, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that parents have to stay home to take care of?”
Vuk was one of several child care providers who launched petitions last week seeking state government assistance or a reopening date aligned with other businesses.
“Child care centers are in crisis, and under threat of closing permanently throughout our state,” said Vuk’s group of 29 child care operators, dubbed Daycares United. “We need your help so that when we make the inevitable transition back into the new normal, the child care centers in our communities are still around to provide services."
The incremental and protracted closure of schools has worn on both working parents and professional caregivers. The governor initially closed K-12 schools but not child care centers, prompting concern and earlier petitions from early educators who worried they were being put at risk. Baker then ordered child care centers closed by March 23, and on April 21, when he said schools would remain closed for the rest of the year, he extended the closures for child care centers through June 29.
But unlike public schools — taxpayer-funded operations whose teachers are still being paid during the shutdown — child care centers are private businesses or nonprofits with ongoing rent and utility expenses and an interrupted revenue flow; many can’t justify charging parents tuition for care they aren’t providing.
As a result, many child care teachers have been laid off and are seeking unemployment benefits, and operators have been doing frantic math, fearing that by the time they are permitted to reopen, they won’t be able to afford it.
Angela Spence, a mother from Newton, started a GoFundMe site to support her child care center, Little Red Wagon; she wishes business leaders were equally concerned about the availability of child care for their employees when they reopen.
“It hasn’t occurred to C-suite executives and senior leaders to have these conversations," said Spence, who works as a diversity specialist. “They’re not living it. Many of them, if you’re at that level, don’t have babies at home.”
Spence said she thinks employers are underestimating the tumult that diminished child care availability will have on reopening the economy.
“The domino effect is that a lot of people are going to have to go to their employers to say, ‘Well if my day care doesn’t exist anymore and my wait lists are a year long, I’ve got to piecemeal a program together, and you have to help me,’” she said.
Senate President Karen Spilka tried to put the issue on the business agenda last week, telling the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce by videoconference that “any phased-in reopening plan must start with preschools and child care.”
“If you think of the concept as infrastructure, as what is needed to get people to work, you must consider child care part of our infrastructure,” Spilka told the chamber. “It’s as important as roads and bridges and public transportation.”
Last week, the governor pushed back from May 4 to May 18 his aspirational date for beginning to reopen businesses — six weeks before child care centers are set to reopen. When he named a new panel of business and municipal leaders to advise him on reopening guidelines, he did not include anyone from the child care sector. He told reporters he wanted to keep the group small and that its members will consult with day care operators on whether it’s possible to begin reopening before June 29. He has noted that businesses will be reopened in phases over a period of time.
But operators were stung by their omission.
“We’re a pretty important piece of the economy. I get it that not every industry can be represented, but we’re the wheels on the bus,” said Charlie Marcotty, a co-owner of First Circle Learning Centers in Lexington and Framingham. “Parents can’t work without quality child care. It seems like we should have had some kind of voice.”
Marcotty’s co-owner, Marcy Lee, noted that the government seems to be equating child care centers with public schools — rather than private businesses. They hope to be aligned with the businesses whose employees that rely on their care.
Last week, Marcotty and Lee penned a second letter to the governor from more than 35 child care operators who say they “feel like they have been forgotten in this pandemic.” They called for consistency in timing the reopening of child care centers and the reopening of businesses, “both to serve families going back to work and to keep programs solvent."
Not everyone agrees with them; some child care providers, especially those who watch children in their own homes, reacted to the petition with alarm, expressing concern about safety.
Vuk’s group, meanwhile, begged the state for grants to sustain the industry, a moratorium on rents and a state subsidy or a tax reimbursement for commercial landlords, and a formal reopening schedule for child care centers.
When the shutdown began, state officials tried to support child care centers in several ways. The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care — the agency that licenses and oversees child care centers and in-home family day care programs — agreed to continue paying for low-income students whose care is state-subsidized. The state also asked willing providers to apply to serve as “Emergency Child Care Programs," which are reimbursed to care for the children of essential workers free of charge.
But the emergency child care programs are operating well below capacity — only about one-quarter of the 10,000 available spots are being used — and providers say they aren’t being paid enough to stay afloat. Though some have “grasped a lifeline” by securing federal funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, others fear their businesses are falling apart before their eyes, Vuk’s letter said.
Last week, US Senator Elizabeth Warren led 30 senators in calling for a $50 billion bailout for struggling child care operations. She pointed to an analysis from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, which found that child care capacity could be cut in half nationwide and 34 percent in Massachusetts, leaving many parents unable to return to workplaces when they reopen.
The proposed $50 billion fund would also boost pay for child care providers in the long term to shore up a fragile sector. Warren, who has called for universal child care, and other advocates say that the role child care providers play in maintaining the economy has long been undervalued.
“Access to child care can no longer be viewed as a work-life accessory that individual families should sort out for themselves," said Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, which advocates for child care policy reform. "If COVID-19 has shown us one thing, it’s that child care is a collective necessity. It’s a public good.”