New Orleans’ child care industry was in poor health long before the coronavirus hit.
Teacher pay is low and tuition cost is high. Under normal conditions, the number of children in need of child care far exceeds available spots.
Now with more than half of the city’s centers closed due to the pandemic, many are questioning whether they’ll be able to re-open at all. And as families struggle to work from home while caring for their children, the new fear is that if child care centers permanently shutter, parents will be stuck at home and the economy won’t fully reopen.
These concerns aren’t unique to Louisiana, but here they’re even more pronounced.
A recent survey showed that more than 70 percent of Louisiana’s child care centers closed during the stay-at-home order.
Libbie Sonnier is the executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children. Her organization has been surveying child care providers since the pandemic hit the state in March.
“Approximately a third of them said, if we have a prolonged closure that we may not be able to reopen again,” Sonnier said.
Centers that have remained open, largely to care for the children of essential workers, say the pandemic has also drained their finances.
“Even while they were open, they weren’t able to really bring in the revenue they needed to cover costs,” Sonnier said.
Child care centers — the majority of which are women- and minority-owned — already operated on tight profit margins. But now things are even worse.
There are new expenses, like cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Workers are potentially exposed to the virus every day, but don’t receive hazard pay. Those who are at high risk of infection often do not want to return to work and directors say it is difficult to replace them.
Then there’s the loss of income. Many centers are serving far fewer children than usual. Some parents aren’t ready to send their kids back, and even if they are, child care spots have been roughly cut in half to comply with social distancing.
Pamela Marshall is the owner and director of Shiloh Gardens Preschool in Central City, New Orleans. She decided to keep her center open to serve as a respite center for the children of essential workers, but she says she understands why other centers have decided to stay closed.
“It’s not worth it to come out and open your doors when you can’t pay your electric bills. When you can’t afford to pay your employees,” Marshall said.
Marshall said she doesn’t have enough money coming in right now to cover rent, utilities and payroll. She’s getting some funding from federal and state relief programs, but not enough to pay her teachers’ full salaries.
“I thought about raising my prices,” Marshall said. “But my concern is, will my parents be able to afford it?”
Marshall’s center operates in a child care desert and her parents are low-income. Seventy-five percent of them qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP. That means the government pays part of their tuition. But Marshall said it often still isn’t enough.
“They could not afford the child care co-payments that were assigned to them prior to this,” Marshall said. “I wonder and I fear: How will they survive?”
Under Phase 1 of Louisiana’s reopening guidelines, child care centers must keep classroom ratios low to prevent the spread of the virus — nine kids or four infants to one adult.
Many child care facilities already have low ratios, but the strict guidelines likely mean they’ll still have to turn some children away. The bigger problem is that under Phase 1, the groups need to remain separated, and many centers are used to having several groups share one large room.
Rochelle Wilcox of Wilcox’s Academy of Early Learning said she’s holding off on opening until after New Orleans enters Phase Two.
“If we open in Phase Two it looks very different,” Wilcox said. “If Phase 1 continues longer than we anticipate, it will look like, OK do we put everyone's name in a hat?”
She said financially it doesn’t make sense for her to open before then. She’d have to reduce her staff and turn some parents away. Even then, she’d be losing money.
While centers will still be faced with new expenses due to health and safety measures, Phase 2 guidelines allow for more typical operating conditions. Group size increases to 25 individuals and guidance around group mixing is more relaxed.
Of the half-dozen child care providers New Orleans Public Radio spoke with, many have made similar calculations.
Louisiana plans to enter Phase 2 later this week, but New Orleans will not. The city plans to stick with Phase 1 for a few more weeks.
But a few weeks makes a big difference in the child care industry and centers are already operating on borrowed time.
“There are times when there’s no pandemic and we’re like, OK, how are we going to keep the lights on?” Wilcox said. “So the longer it is, there is without a doubt the highest potential that we just can’t survive.”
Experts fear that centers may be forced to permanently close before demand returns to normal. And that when families do start to look for child care, their options will be severely reduced and more expensive.
“Many child care centers are sort of biding their time until they’re able to reopen in a way that they feel is sustainable and that they’re comfortable with,” said Aimee Grainer, the director of city-wide initiatives at Agenda for Children.
She says that in some cases centers aren’t even able to fill their limited number of seats because demand for child care has been “artificially” depressed by the pandemic.
“There’s very real demand, but because many families are out of work or working from home, we don’t see that,” Grainer said. “Meanwhile the centers are struggling and they may be shuttering.”
Closures peaked in May, when 70 percent of licensed early care and education centers were closed according to the Louisiana Department of Education. The state entered Phase 1 of reopening on May 15 and by the end of the month, the child care sector appeared to be reopening as well — 49 percent of licensed centers were open in the state and 30 percent in the New Orleans area.
Grainer, who is also the deputy director of the New Orleans Early Education Network, said the concern is that by the time the economy fully reopens and families are in desperate need of care, there will be few options left.
“There will likely be many more families that qualify for public assistance because of the economic burden of the pandemic,” Grainer said. “There may be fewer affordable options available, particularly if centers are forced to increase their tuition to offset the cost of an extended closure.”
Everyone New Orleans Public Radio spoke with praised the Louisiana Department of Education’s response to the pandemic. They said the department has made it easy for centers to obtain new grants and retain their usual sources of funding. They’re providing PPE and other supplies and communicating frequently with providers about what to expect next.
But they also said that these short-term solutions aren’t enough to sustain an already struggling sector.
Two-thirds of children ages 5 and under in Louisiana had both parents or a single parent in the workforce. In 2019, less than 15 percent of children under the age of four in Louisiana’s low-income households had access to any publicly funded child care program.
For parents paying full tuition, quality early care and education is almost as expensive as public college tuition.
The cost of care could increase by at least 35 percent for infants, whose care is already significantly more expensive than care for older children, and by more than 60 percent for 4-year-olds, according to the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.
And despite the high price sticker, the median wage for child care teachers in Louisiana is $8.95 an hour.
“If we come out of this pandemic doing exactly what we did before the pandemic, shame on us,” Libbie Sonnier with the Louisiana Policy Institute said.
She said Louisiana’s child care sector needs both immediate funds — somewhere around 71 million dollars — and long-term change. Higher pay for teachers, greater security for centers and higher government subsidies for parents.
In the meantime, Pamela Marshall said she’s running out of time.
Before the pandemic hit, Marshall said, she was already two months behind on payments. With the expenses of the pandemic piling up, she says her center can only remain operational for about another month if they don’t receive additional relief.
She worries what will happen to her children if she has to close her doors.
“I know those children that come here and depend on us for a hot meal everyday. I know that when they’re here with us they’re safe,” Marshall said. “If I’m not here to provide those services for them, I fear what could happen.”
Not only are centers a place where low-income children go to eat, but child care providers are also mandatory reporters that watch out for child abuse.
A center is often a safe place for children to go when their parents are working, that also provides early learning opportunities that help children develop necessary social and emotional skills and prepare them to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that child care is both essential and fragile. Centers with families that pay full tuition are better equipped to survive, while centers that serve low-income families are more likely to close.
Many wealthy countries heavily subsidize early care and education. They recognize that the true cost of care often exceeds what parents are able to pay and that low-income children are most at risk. The United States has long resisted similar policies and it’s unclear whether that will change.