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Colorado child care centers fear for their survival as coronavirus brings closures, enrollment dips

The pandemic is testing the stability of the state’s child care system -- one that will be critical to an economic recovery.

Sam Raboin is one of the Behavioral Health Specialists on staff at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. She sat with Nora Picard in her classroom at the center's historic downtown building Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Even before the new coronavirus crept its way into Colorado, Eagle County child care providers struggled to serve all children needing a safe place to spend the day.

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The county already couldn’t afford to lose a single teacher and was actively trying to open more child care centers and add more teachers to respond to steep demand, said County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.

That goal has now shifted from growth to survival, particularly as Eagle County contends with more than 90 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as of Sunday.

“We’re hoping that when we’re through this, the programs that we had will continue to be able to open their doors and have teachers,” McQueeney said.

Early child care in education centers are one of the few remaining places that are allowed to continue operating, even as Gov. Jared Polis last week mandated that all Colorado schools halt in-person instruction between March 23 and April 17.

Still, some child care centers in Colorado have closed already. In Larimer County, some have paused operations to protect the safety and health of employees and children before any COVID-19 cases appeared. Others have shut their doors because their enrollment dropped substantially with parents keeping their children home, and some stopped care due to suspected cases or exposure to COVID-19 among staff or students, said Christina Taylor, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. More than 10 child care centers across the county have closed, including some of its larger centers.

The hope to keep child care programs in operation is threaded through early child care in education centers across Colorado as the threat of having to close altogether looms over many of them. In a recent survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 33% of 85 Colorado child care providers said they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without “significant public investment and support” so that they could continue to pay and retain staff members and cover rent and other expenses.

Gabriella Gabbin, center, and other children play together in the dining room of Early Connections Learning Center in downtown Colorado Springs Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. The historic building was built for the Colorado Springs Day Nursery Association and donated to the organization in 1923. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another 22% would not be able to make it through a closure of any period of time without additional support, and 29% did not know how long they could endure a closure before reopening without outside support, according to survey results.

Nationally, of 9,000 child care providers who took part in the survey, 30% said they would not be able to reopen after closing for more than two weeks without a lot of public investment and support. Another 17% said they would not survive a closure of any time. Additionally, 16% indicated they would not make it more than a month and 25% were not sure how long they could remain closed and come out on the other side.

As the coronavirus grips Colorado, it’s clear that the state’s early child care in education system is ill-equipped to cope, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“I think the biggest flaw that’s been revealed is that we have not built an infrastructure around early care in education that can withstand a disruption,” Jaeger said. “That is most acutely seen in our low pay for our teachers, our early childhood teachers, and the vulnerable position that so many providers are in that they can’t weather even a two-week disruption.”

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. (Provided by the CDC)

Jaeger worries how that disruption will play out long term for Colorado’s child care industry, fearing that once social distancing subsides and Colorado emerges from the crisis, “we will have seen child care dismantled throughout the state.”

Child care will be particularly critical in helping fuel an economic recovery that will be largely focused on transitioning people back to work, Jaeger said. He noted that two-thirds of Colorado children under the age of 6 don’t have a parent available to care for them because of the need to work.

“And if there is no child care system left or it’s greatly diminished, economic recovery is going to be hamstrung in bringing back our communities to be the thriving places we know they can be,” he said.

Helping child care centers recover their losses

Early care in education programs in Colorado are about 72% privately funded — meaning parents pay for the care — with the rest funded through public streams, Jaeger said. Those include Head Start and Early Head Start, composed of federal dollars, and the Colorado Preschool Program, which is primarily backed by state funds that mostly flow through school districts. Another public funding mechanism consists of the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, a combination of federal, state and local funds, Jaeger said.

Most child care providers will have a difficult time collecting revenue from parents right now as parents lose their jobs, struggle to make ends meet already, transition to working from home and stop sending their kids to child care or lose that option with their child care facility closing, Jaeger said.

Public funding could also be a challenge. For instance, CCAP dollars are attendance based, Jaeger said, so providers aren’t paid if students don’t show up.

Ava Golian plays with a dollhouse in her preschool classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

As Colorado works to ensure that the state’s emergency workers have access to child care while treating coronavirus patients, Polis is also extending financial support to Colorado’s child care centers. Through an executive order issued last week, he directed the Colorado Department of Human Services to access funds to help reimburse counties that pay child care providers with funds from CCAP for child absences or closures due to COVID-19 for at least the next eight weeks.

Prior to COVID-19, Colorado counties on average would cover one absence per month at a child care center, Jaeger said.

Education and child care advocates like the Colorado Children’s Campaign are also urging Congress to prioritize child care centers as it develops another economic relief package. In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Thursday, more than 600 advocates, including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, stressed the need for “significant funding” to keep quality child care in place.

“Child care providers are already operating on very small margins while the safety of children, families, educators and the community is paramount in decision-making, extended closures over the next several weeks or months could potentially put a substantial percentage of them out of business permanently, exacerbating the realities of the widespread child care deserts as they already exist today,” the letter stated.

Sam Raboin is one of the Behavioral Health Specialists on staff at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. She played with Nora Picard in her classroom at the center’s historic downtown building Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Eagle County plans to maximize the flexibility created by Polis’ executive order, covering up to 31 absences a month beginning March 1 for all children approved for CCAP funding, McQueeney said.

In Larimer County, CCAP funding will pay for up to 10 absences at a center in a month — up from the typical three absences a month the funding covers, Taylor said.

Additionally, the county has lifted its waitlist of families who need CCAP dollars to access care so that more people will be able to use those funds to receive care. That is especially critical right now in order to help all essential workers, including grocery store employees and medical professionals, Taylor said.

Family providers, who care for children out of their homes, are filling the need and staying open to support families, Taylor said, as centers close more frequently because they tend to have higher numbers of children and more staff.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Among family and center providers, there is a lot of fear and uncertainty about what to do, Taylor said, as there have been many mixed messages coming from the state.

She acknowledged that the state is scrambling, too.

“This is a new situation for all of us.”

The strain is particularly hard on family child care providers, who haven’t had much clarity on whether they qualify for state or federal aid and how they can access emergency funding, Taylor said. “They feel very much left out in the cold in terms of guidance and support.”

The real prospect of closing down

Uncertainty is reaching far across Colorado’s early child care in education sector, said Nathaniel Cradle, a board member with the Colorado Association for the Education of Young Children and co-founder of Venture for Success Preparatory Learning Center in Denver.

Cradle appreciates the governor’s executive order, but feels that child care providers are the last essential services to understand the type of relief they’ll receive.

He estimates that many child care providers will experience an enrollment drop of at least 95%, which will cause enough of a financial hardship to send them out of business. The average child care facility already operates week by week or month by month and, with outsized debt, is barely scraping by, Cradle said.

His nonprofit learning center, which has about six staff members and between 25 and 35 children, has stayed open throughout the spread of the coronavirus and is trying to manage after enrollment decreased by about 40%.

Venture for Success Preparatory Learning Center in Denver on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The center has remained open during the spread of the new coronavirus but has experienced a 40% dip in enrollment. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Cradle’s center benefits from some private paying clients and other revenue streams — including funding from donors, many of whom have committed to extending emergency funds — but he relies heavily on CCAP funding. At least 95% of children who attend his facility, which is located in a low-income community, qualify for subsidized care, he said.

Cradle isn’t certain how many absences Denver County will cover moving forward. He said the county typically takes care of nine absences per year. He has not heard any updates since the executive order was issued.

Short term, Cradle is optimistic that his center will survive, but eyeing further into the future projects it faces a 60% or 70% chance of failure.

The stakes feel just as high for Denver’s Sunshine Academy, which closed on March 13 after encountering many obstacles to staying open, including a struggle to find enough food and supplies like latex gloves and hand soap.

The Sunshine Academy in Denver on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The center closed on March 13 in response to the spread of the new coronavirus in Colorado. Operators struggled to find enough food and supplies to stay open. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Owner Suhair Alhamad and her daughter, Fatin Ahmad, assistant director, didn’t want to close and considered trying to remain open, but also don’t want to be in violation of state standards or have an infection.

The for-center, which is licensed to serve 38 children and also operates with CCAP funding, is still paying for insurance, the internet, electricity, security and a phone bill along with trying to pay staff wages for at least two weeks.

Without assistance from the state, the pair might have to permanently close their child care center doors, which Ahmad said would particularly hurt the surrounding community since it’s located in a child care desert.

The Sunshine Academy recently has received CCAP funding from Denver County to cover one absence per month, Alhamad said, and it will need help covering absences during the pandemic, in part to continue paying rent and compensate staff.

One other concern top of mind for child care providers: retaining educators who may start exploring other career opportunities for the sake of their own livelihoods.

“They still have to pay bills,” Cradle said.


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