When the state announced it would allow some child-care centers to remain open despite COVID-19 closures, it expected to be flooded with children in need.
Instead, only about 2,500 children are attending child-care programs with space for 10,000.
Governor Charlie Baker said last week it’s not clear why the centers aren’t being used.
“We set it up at that level because we thought with the essential work community that we have, that would be the kind of number that people would be looking for,” Baker said. State officials have been alerting area employers to the extra capacity, but “for one reason or another, it hasn’t been accessed yet," he said.
The state’s Exempt Emergency Child Care Program was designed to help parents who had no way of caring for their children with child-care centers closed: emergency services workers who didn’t have a family member at home who could baby-sit; homeless and otherwise at-risk families whose children had nowhere safe to spend their days. Families that met the criteria could attend free of charge, and the state would foot the bill.
Access was meant to be limited — not only for cost but for safety. The state Department of Early Education and Care, which licenses and oversees child-care settings, encouraged families to use emergency care as a last resort and to “keep children out of group-care settings to the greatest extent possible."
But some emergency child-care providers interpreted the state’s criteria so strictly that they have limited access even more than intended, they revealed in interviews. Some believed that both parents had to be essential workers and that if any adult was at home, even working full time, the family would be disqualified.
“There are pretty stringent requirements of who can actually use this," said Christopher Vuk, who owns Rock and Roll Daycares, and whose Inman Square location in Cambridge is now providing emergency care. "We’ve had plenty of people come, but we have to deny them.”
Another emergency day-care operator, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with Vuk’s interpretation.
But Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Early Education and Care, said that’s not true. A child is eligible for emergency care if just one parent is an essential worker, or if the child is homeless or deemed at-risk by the state.
Parents and providers alike have been confused about the criteria, said SEIU Local 509 president Peter MacKinnon, whose union represents many essential workers, as well as certain family child-care providers.
“What has happened is, some of the providers heard the advisory at the beginning and they’ve heard that as like a steadfast rule,” said MacKinnon. “There have been some barriers.”
Other parents, MacKinnon said, wrongly believed that they need to call in every day to ask whether there is a child-care spot available for their child.
But most are probably steering clear of the program for a simple reason: They are concerned about safety and social distancing, and the state has kept all other child-care centers closed for the past six weeks.
“People are scared,” said Vuk.
Some providers are wary of exposure, too. Cheryl McCarthy, who has provided child care from her Southwick home for the past 23 years, wanted to offer emergency care, but was dissuaded by her three children, who couldn’t face the thought of a devastating respiratory disease; just a year ago, her husband had died after being on a ventilator.
Still, more than 500 child-care providers stepped up as emergency caregivers, eager to help families in their communities and eager for help themselves. Even as the state overestimated the number of working parents who desperately needed child care, it underestimated the number of child-care providers who desperately needed income.
“We thought, this is a perfect opportunity for us to step up. To do something for the greater good,” said Tonya Stump, who runs the Little Stars Learning Center in South Dennis with her daughter, Sydney Stump. “But we also wanted to try to be able to be here when this is all over, to keep our doors open.”
Running an emergency center turned out to be less of a lifeline than the Stumps expected, though. The funding the state has provided is not covering all their costs — the snacks, the utility bills, the rent, the cleaning supplies. The Stumps have not taken salaries themselves and used all of their emergency program grant money to pay teachers.
Under the program, day-care centers can receive up to $20,000 per month for operating two classrooms with up to 20 students each. At maximum capacity, that would deliver just $100 per child per week — about a third of the regular weekly tuition of $300 to $350 per child. At that rate, the Stumps couldn’t pay the number of teachers they need to staff those rooms.
“The reality is this: Even if we decided to take the 40 kids, we couldn’t afford to take the 40 kids,” said Tonya Stump.
Tonya Stump said it is this complicated financial calculus — not lack of demand from parents — that has led to underenrollment in the emergency child-care program.
“The numbers are giving the impression that there’s not a need for care, when in fact owners are having to make choices and decisions to limit care,” she said.
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care said the grants are not intended to cover providers’ full operating costs. “The intent is to help ease the financial burden on programs that have stepped forward and partnered with EEC to provide assistance to families in this unprecedented global health care crisis,” the department’s website reads.
That could explain why emergency child-care providers who provide family care — in their homes — generally expressed more satisfaction than those who operate day-care centers with payroll to maintain.
“It’s helpful," said Evelyn Poku, who is caring for four children in her Worcester home. “Without this program, I wouldn’t have even managed to pay my rent.”
Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.