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“If we close, you can’t go to work”: Colorado child care centers poised for a big infusion of state money

More women than men have left the workforce and not returned since the pandemic. Lack, or fear, of child care is to blame.

Ellie Alfaro leads fellow 3- to 5-year-olds in a run on the playground Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, at the Early Connections Learning Centers Day Nursery in downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Child care centers are among the few Colorado businesses that have been allowed to stay open during the pandemic, yet they are a top priority as the state legislature meets this week to hand out coronavirus relief money.

The reason is that child care connects the entire economy, according to policymakers and financial experts who are pushing legislation to give daycares and preschools up to $35,000 to stay open and $50,000 to expand. Katie McDonald, who owns Meadows Early Learning Center in Parker, explains it succinctly.

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“If we close, you can’t go to work,” she said. “The doctors whose children come to the center can’t go to work. I have four parents that are Parker police officers. We have 11 nurses here who are parents. If they can’t go to work, we lose our first responders. Parents lose their ability to shop at King Soopers. We need to have all of those things to have a functioning economy.”

The Parker child care center lost half its enrollment when the pandemic hit in the spring. Several teachers quit because they had to take care of their own children when schools closed, and McDonald had to sell a rental house she owned so she could keep making the daycare’s $26,000 monthly rent.

She has spent more than ever on cleaning supplies, and don’t even ask her about the cost of latex gloves, which have gone from about $3.33 for 100 pairs to about $15. Teachers have always worn them to change diapers and bandage up scraped knees, but now the whole world seems to need them. 

“Now I see people at the grocery store wearing gloves and I’m like, ‘Are you serious? Give me my gloves,’” McDonald said. “I have Amazon alerts set up on every type of gloves in case the price drops.” 

Jacob Leija plays with other kids in his 3- to 5-year-olds class Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, at the Early Connections Learning Centers Day Nursery in downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A June survey of 1,207 licensed child care centers in Colorado conducted by an early childhood nonprofit found that 10% have closed since the pandemic began and that increased public funding is crucial to the survival of those that remain. On average, enrollment has dropped 30% statewide.

Historically, decreases in child care options have disproportionately affected women, and the statistics so far from the coronavirus crisis are proving this true in Colorado. 

Women more often than men are leaving their jobs to care for children who are at home logging into online school, economic experts said. Just from February to September, the size of the labor force of women with kids shrank by 42,000 in Colorado, according to a report from the conservative-leaning Common Sense Institute. 

State data also confirms that men recovered more quickly from job loss at the start of the coronavirus crisis compared with women. While 52,000 men entered the labor force in August and September, just 21,000 women did so, the institute found. 

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“Working women with children, disproportionately women of color, are leaving the workforce in droves due to demands placed on families during this pandemic,” said Nicole Riehl, president of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, an organization of business leaders who support early childhood education.

Not only are women disproportionately affected by a lack of child care, the industry itself is dominated by women, either working as teachers or business owners — meaning that closing facilities reduces both jobs and opportunity. 

Riehl, who testified in support of the economic relief legislation at the state Capitol this week, told lawmakers the legislation isn’t just about child care — the sector has a ripple effect on the economy. “Hospital administrators are not only concerned about nearing capacity for beds, but the fact that lack of child care prevents many of their health care employees from reporting to work and responding to surge capacity staffing needs,” she said.

Proposal totals $45 million

Lawmakers who gave initial approval to the $45 million measure Monday said they wanted to prioritize aid to child care centers in the state’s daycare deserts. More than half of state residents live in an area — urban or rural — where there are more than three children for every available child care slot. 

The state Office of Early Childhood, which would distribute the funds, plans to make sure child care centers in rural areas are aware of the grants and encourage them to apply, said director Mary Alice Cohen. The grants are available only to licensed child care providers or those in the process of seeking licenses. 

“Child care is a linchpin for economic recovery,” Cohen said. 

Baylee Cortes holds Josie Picard while supervising playtime for preschoolers on an outdoor playground Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, at the Early Connections Learning Centers Day Nursery in downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The proposal, which passed the House and won initial approval in the Senate on Tuesday, would give child care centers from $500 to $35,000 to help them stay open despite the economic crush of the pandemic. A second program would dole out grants from $3,000 to $50,000 for child care centers that want to open or expand. Child care providers would receive the money beginning Jan. 31. 

The bailout for child care centers is a priority for Gov. Jared Polis, who called lawmakers back into session this week to consider more than $300 million in spending on economic relief and coronavirus response measures.

Diane Price, who runs a Colorado Springs nonprofit with six child care locations, is planning to apply for a sustainability grant to keep operating. Early Connections, which includes a drop-in daycare at the courthouse, managed — until recently — to keep all six of its centers open throughout the pandemic.

In the past two weeks, the nonprofit had to close two of its largest child care centers because so many of its teachers and families were out with cold symptoms and awaiting tests for COVID-19. Both are scheduled to reopen after two-week closures. 

In the end, there have been only a handful of positive cases, but the required quarantines were enough to close multiple classrooms. “It’s just cold season and sniffles,” Price said. “But right now, they are out if that happens.” 

Enrollment dropped to 48% capacity in the spring and has slowly crept up to 58%, Price said. Meanwhile, costs have increased. With children and teachers in cohorts, staff can’t float from classroom to classroom to cover shifts. Price is buying masks and gloves in bulk, at higher prices than ever. Employees have been hard to find, either because they’re staying home to take care of their own kids or because they don’t feel safe exposing themselves to so many kids and their families during the pandemic. 

Price worked in an infant room to help out for two days recently, then left work exhausted and with baby puke on her shirt. 

Early Connections set a goal at the start of the pandemic to keep its doors open, mainly because many of its families work in essential industries, including gas stations and grocery stores. About 80% qualify for subsidies through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, and the rest pay for daycare based on a sliding scale.

As economy reopens, workers will need child care

The goal of the legislation is not just to keep child care centers afloat during the pandemic, but to make sure that enough of them exist when the economy begins to recover, said Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins and sponsor of the bill. The child care slots in Colorado were inadequate before the pandemic, leaving some families on wait lists for months or without any affordable option near home or work.

“Child care in Colorado has been a really significant problem in our state for many, many years,” Kipp said. “We are always scrambling to find additional providers.” 

Bill Jaeger, vice president at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the pandemic has further proved that “everyone relies on someone who relies on child care.” The “heroic work” of nurses, doctors, grocery store employees, agricultural producers and sanitation workers during the pandemic is possible, he said, because of the workers “who have stepped up to care for and educate young children so their parents can work.” 

“Our economic recovery will be shaped by how quickly our labor force can return to work,” Jaeger said. 

Jacob Leija shoots a basket Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, on the outdoor playground at the Early Connections Learning Centers Day Nursery in downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In Crested Butte, Ben Poswalk had no choice but to close down his preschool when the pandemic hit hard in Gunnison County this spring. The mountain county was a national hot spot for coronavirus, and local public health authorities closed the area to visitors and ordered many businesses, even child care centers, to shut their doors. 

During the shutdown, teachers at Paradise Place created activity packets to give parents “20 or 30 minutes of sanity” during their work-from-home days, Poswalk said. But as it dragged on, many of Paradise’s teachers left.

Normally full with a waitlist, Paradise Place lost $42,000 in tuition in just two months, Poswalk said. The preschool for children ages 1-4 reopened in May and is finally filling up its classrooms. About half of Poswalk’s staff quit, many of them young people who could barely afford to live in a resort town on a child care salary. Some moved back home to their parents, he said. 

A grant would help Poswalk recoup some of his COVID costs, including extra staff to “valet” toddlers into the building because parents can no longer enter and $10,000 for a Halo disinfecting system that basically “bug bombs the whole building” after everyone leaves at night.

“You can’t guarantee where a toddler has and hasn’t been in a classroom,” he said. “The amount of bleach being used was almost becoming toxic for our staff.”

Poswalk said he was thankful that the governor, who has two elementary school-age children, asked the legislature to support early-childhood education. “It really does shift the future,” Poswalk said. “It’s how we make this state a better place.”

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