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With funding challenges looming, Mass. child care could be in jeopardy

Many early education providers have already reached a breaking point, and the loss of additional state funding in June could be devastating

Joanna Hendrix, a longtime teacher at United South End Settlements day care, played with 11-month-old J'Lian, one of her classroom's three babies.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It is 9:07 a.m., and Joanna Hendrix is stuck between a sleepy baby and two hungry ones. Since her co-teacher quit months ago, Hendrix has been the sole teacher in the infant room at United South End Settlements’ day-care center. Hendrix is about to use her foot to rock the tired baby in a bouncer while feeding the others, but thankfully a colleague swoops in to help on this November morning.

“It is like juggling, every day, all the time,” Hendrix said with a nervous laugh. “It never ends.”

After 18 years in child care, Hendrix knows babies well — what blanket Milo needs, how Celia likes to be fed, which toys J’Lian prefers. But every day feels more difficult than the last, as Hendrix watches colleagues leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. The center is strapped for resources at every turn.

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Those financial strains are likely to get worse: Pandemic-era federal funding for child care ended in September. Governor Maura Healey and the Legislature provided one-time state funding of $475 million to the industry through the end of the fiscal year in June.

This year, the state separately also budgeted roughly $850 million — mostly from the federal government — to support child care financial assistance through items such as subsidies for low-income families and reimbursements to the providers who serve them.

But providers said the child-care industry is so broken that it requires a more permanent funnel of government money that goes directly to providers, such as the Commonwealth Cares for Children grants that came through during COVID-19.

The American Rescue Plan and other COVID funds funneled more than $600 million directly to child-care centers using a formula that accounted for staffing levels and community demographics. It helped keep businesses afloat amid fiscal freefall.

Now, providers said, the coming end of the C3 grants means centers from Granby to Chelsea will likely have to hike tuition to cover overhead expenses, including rent, insurance, and supplies. Teachers — already paid no more than $46,000 annually — will likely have to soldier on without wage increases or leave the industry out of necessity.

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Some centers fear they will have to accept fewer children from low-income families, whose government subsidies do not cover the full cost of care.

Others warn they may be forced to close.

Parents dropped off their children in the early morning at United South End Settlements, a longtime child-care provider that serves around 60 young children. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Bills winding through the State House aim to combat the problems by creating new state funding, expanding subsidies for families, and debuting publicly funded early childhood education.

A spokesperson for the Healey administration said the governor supports legislative efforts to make early education more affordable and accessible, and would review any bills that reach her desk.

Without them, the additional money from C3 grants acts as little more than a Band-Aid, said Stephen Huntley, president of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care.

“The federal money bailed us out at a time when we needed it, but the need has just gotten worse,” Huntley said. “The pendulum could swing 180 degrees in the wrong direction quickly.”

At United South End Settlements, or USES, a nonprofit child-care center that serves families of all income levels, Hendrix already feels the desperation. She makes the high end of the pay scale, and works overtime at least twice a week covering for colleagues who fall sick or burn out. Add in the expense and energy of raising her 7-year-old foster child, and the calculus falls apart.

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Three infants, two hands, and little pay: “It’s just too much,” Hendrix said.

By noon, she furrowed her eyebrows and thought about what this classroom stands to lose, should child care fall deeper into dysfunction.

“What happens,” Hendrix asked, “to these little babies?”

Joanna Hendrix held 6-month-old Celia Waldman after her older brother, Lawson, and mother, Marian, dropped her off for the day.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

USES comes alive before daybreak. Inside the brick building is a maze of crayons and handwritten name tags. Its four floors of classrooms house 64 children, eight full-time teachers, and a half-dozen “floaters.”

Overseeing them all is Kaiti Coffin, the youth and family mobility director. She regularly struggles with the question: How much can child-care providers do with so little?

The center is reluctant to raise tuition. Families who pay full price contribute between $22,000 to $37,000 per year, depending on the child’s age. Sixty percent of families receive some kind of subsidy based on their earnings.

Yet the money coming in does not match that going out. For each child on subsidies, the center says it has a $6,500 annual gap in funding.

For three years, USES directed thousands of dollars from the C3 grants to maintenance on its century-old building, pay for recruiters, and bonuses for educators.

Coffin still sees that as scraping by. Even with the grants, the center could not afford raises for teachers, who make between $19 and $22 an hour. The center recently had to close a classroom and absorb its students into two other rooms.

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USES remains four teachers short. Applications are not piling up.

Kaiti Coffin, the director of youth and family mobility programming, conducted a morning meeting at United South End Settlements. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We want to be leaders in the pack, which will help bring in families and keep educators in the field,” Coffin said. “But right now, this is the best we can do.”

Throngs of providers see the C3 grants not as a benefit but rather an “indispensable tool” to keep centers open, said Amy O’Leary, executive director of the advocacy group Strategies for Children. Providers across Massachusetts say the grants helped them stave off tuition increases and accommodate children with greater needs.

Should legislators find a replacement for the money, 81 percent of Massachusetts center-based providers would increase salaries for educators, according to a survey from the Department of Early Education and Care. One in eight providers would consider reducing tuition.

Teachers Angela Sanchez (left) and Tamare Gordon read a book to the "Busy Bee" classroom at USES. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For Molly and Brian Langevin, USES made “perfect sense.” Walkable from their South End home, it came highly recommended. Two years ago, they appreciated how its loving staff made their newborn feel comfortable among a diverse cohort of students.

As two accountants, the Langevins can afford tuition. But with the birth of their second child this fall, the day-care bill for two — about $60,000 per year — stings.

“We’re not in a position where someone has to quit their job to stay home,” Molly Langevin said. “But we probably cannot afford to have a third kid.”

The end of C3 grants, providers worry, could exacerbate the cost of care even further and drive working parents into full-time caregiving.

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“It’s going to disproportionately impact those single-income homes, which again will impact women of color,” said Sandra Quince, chief executive of Paradigm for Parity, a coalition of business leaders addressing the gender gap in the C-suite.

Ajaria Smith kissed her 18-month-old, Azrael, goodbye at morning drop-off. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Expanding funding for child care would lead to increases in the number of employed parents and the hours they work, a study from the University of Massachusetts Boston found. The percentage of infant and toddler mothers employed in the state would rise from 70.5 percent to 74 percent, the study said.

Last year, Ajaria Smith, 23, returned to her psychology degree at UMass Boston and began job hunting after giving birth to her son, Azrael. That would be inconceivable without the subsidy she receives from Boston to send him to USES’ Busy Bee classroom. There, the 18-month-old learns letters and nursery rhymes, or roars like a dinosaur with his teachers.

Smith hopes to land a job that will allow her to afford full-time care. Until then, she fears the end of the subsidies that make it possible for Azrael to attend the same center she did as a child.

“It feels like home,” said Smith. “I don’t want Azrael to lose that.”

A painted mission sign on the wall at USES.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.