As Massachusetts employees tiptoe out of a nearly three-month lockdown, the already expensive child care market will likely become even more competitive for families, due to new regulations aimed at keeping children safe in a COVID era. Early educators say the socially distant classrooms they’re being told to reopen will be far more costly to operate, less welcoming to youngsters, and perhaps completely unworkable.
Preschool classrooms that previously accommodated 20 children will be limited to 10. Strict limits on interaction will prevent teachers and aides from floating between rooms, keeping them dedicated to the same group of children all day, every day, and possibly necessitating new hires.
“I have to increase tuition. There’s no way to do it otherwise,” said Tracy Hatfield, the owner of Curious Kids Childcare Inc. in Hudson. “I’m looking at a 40 percent decrease in income without changing my rates."
Hatfield was already planning to increase tuition immediately upon reopening to generate money for all the new personal protective equipment and cleaning materials.
Now she realizes those tuition fees will be eaten up by changes needed to meet new state health and safety standards requiring dedicated staff with fewer children in roomier spaces — increasing her payroll while cutting her revenue from enrollment fees.
Those restrictions — along with stringent protocols on hygiene, hand washing, and temperature checks for children and staff — are aimed at making day cares safe for reopening amid a shaky recovery from a deadly pandemic. That means controlling the number of people who interact — asking parents to hand off their children at the front door and keeping teachers from rotating classrooms to give one another bathroom breaks.
“The way we have bent the curve of the virus is by having fewer contacts for every potential exposure,” said Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy.
But the regulations are causing worrisome calculations in a field where preexisting student-teacher ratios are already governed every minute of the day.
With two teachers required in one preschool room at all times and no other adults permitted to enter, Hatfield asked: “I can’t even have a teacher cover them for a bathroom?”
If she could solve the problem by hiring a third teacher for that room, she would still lose money, since the regulations limit the total capacity of a room, not just children.
“If you have three teachers, you have to drop a tuition-paying child because your maximum size in the classroom can only be 12,” she said.
Asked about the conundrum, the commissioner said regulators will entertain any “reasonable staffing plans” that day care centers design to make the requirements work and of course allow for bathroom breaks. She said she will release additional guidance for providers in the coming days.
“We’re trying to set some baseline requirements, but we’re going to have to see the accommodations that need to be made to help support them through reopening,” she said.
Frustrated, many child care center owners are urging the department to reconsider the new regulations completely. This week, more than 25,000 educators signed an online petition saying the regulations would “cripple” many private pay businesses.
“The state of MA has failed our Early Childhood programs," they wrote.
And, they wrote, the social distancing measures they’re being asked to enforce are unworkable with small children and antithetical to the principles of early education. Circle time is prohibited, and games of tag are taboo. Toddlers developing socialization skills will be unable to read facial expressions behind teachers’ masks, and youngsters whose parents send them to group care settings for socialization will be encouraged to play separately, alone.
“How can you have day care in this climate? It is insane,” said Hatfield, who expects to put cones in her classrooms to direct the flow of children and to try to keep toddlers from touching. “Really they’re going to be pretty much placed in these segregated areas individually and not allowed to leave them.”
For months, the department has discouraged group care, saying it should be used only as a last resort by essential workers who had no other recourse.
Governor Charlie Baker also irked child care providers by announcing a state partnership with Care.Com, the Waltham-based online matchmaking service for families seeking care. That arrangement offered three-month free premium memberships to Massachusetts families and laid-off child care workers, helping them to connect online and arrange individual in-home care. But child care providers forced to shut down chafed at the inconsistency. Why would a governor who had just shooed children out of familiar caregivers’ homes amid social distancing encourage families to open their doors to newcomers?
Few families or teachers took advantage of the Care.Com offer, however, perhaps due to the vagaries of an unfolding pandemic and continuing health concerns.
“The modest success rate of our program with the Commonwealth is likely in part due to so much uncertainty surrounding how long shelter-in-place would be in effect," Care.com CEO Tim Allen said in a statement, while noting that as states reopen, “we’re seeing surging demand.”
It remains to be seen how willing parents will be to hand their children off to caregivers, even now. During the weeks of shutdown, even essential workers didn’t take full advantage of the free care the state offered on an emergency basis at about 550 child care programs.
Child care centers now face a wildly uncertain market and costly new regulations with very little relief from the government.
Congressional advocates like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Katherine Clark pushed for an industry bailout of as much as $50 billion, acknowledging that many small businesses would not survive a prolonged shutdown.
Beyond individual Paycheck Protection Program loans, though, the only bailout state child care centers have received is $45 million from the federal stimulus package from late March. Aigner-Treworgy said those funds will go only to those centers that accept subsidies for caring for low-income and homeless children, as well as children under the care of the Department of Children and Families. Those are the same centers that continued to receive pay for services all through the shutdown, since the state aimed to stabilize their businesses.
Asked about subsidies at a press conference this week, Governor Charlie Baker said: “I am really interested in making sure we had a program in place for kids and families at risk. Those in particular I would really like to see find a way back because those kids get a lot more out of child care than just being in a child care center.”
The federal relief money won’t go far, delivering only $2,200 a month to child care centers in July and again in August. At Hatfield’s center, that would restore only about $500 a week from the $10,000 she expects to lose weekly on tuition alone due to the new regulations.
Half of the state’s 8,200 child care centers serve only private-paying families and will not receive any portion of the modest federal bailout. That rankles some child care providers, who feel forgotten by the department.
“I feel like, for the private sector in this field, they don’t have our backs,” said Linda Hassapis, who owns five child care centers on the North Shore.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.