Earlier this year, Tricia Peterson says her child care center in Wisconsin was earning about $6,000 a week in tuition fees.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
As enrollment dropped, so did her weekly income — to about $2,500. Peterson says she’s cut costs, stopped taking a paycheck and laid off four employees to remain afloat.
“If our doors weren't open, we would not be servicing our families, and it would be that ripple effect of what would they do," she said. "So I felt like if we were to close, I probably wouldn't financially be able to open back up.”
Child care is a necessity to allow many parents to return to work as economies reopen, as one Ohio parent recently told our sister station WEWS.
“We still have to have a place for our kids to go and be safe while we work,” said Brandis Jackson.
Experts say the livelihood of an already fragile child care industry is now at stake due to the pandemic, putting those providers that families rely on in jeopardy.
“When COVID hit, it just decimated the field,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The majority of centers already operate with thin profit margins due in part to low child-to-provider ratios and high overhead costs — prices that typically then get passed on to parents and are subsidized by low worker pay.
Child care takes huge chunks of parents’ incomes — 11% for married couples and 36% for single parents, according to one 2019 report.
While some centers like Peterson’s in Wisconsin applied to remain open to take care of front-line workers’ kids, others shut their doors when the pandemic hit. More than 100,000 centers were reportedly closed in late April. Experts estimate some closures could become permanent.
“The economics of early childhood education will be even more upside down in that what it would take to just break even in child care," Allvin said. "There's no way that you can reach that with the kind of enrollment numbers that exist currently, both because of parent demand, but also because of the public health requirements that are rightfully being put in place for child care.”
According to a survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, roughly half of the 5,000 respondents said they stopped charging parents in light of the pandemic, while 22% offered reduced tuition rates.
And aside from smaller class sizes, providers are looking at other ways to adjust their routines, including incorporating temperature checks and trying to practice social distancing.
“Even just as simple as, you know, what does drop-off look like," said Yohana Quiroz, COO of The Felton Institute. "We encourage parents to come into the classroom and really connect with the teachers, connect with their children and get them settled in. Well, that's not going to be possible moving forward."
The Felton Institute, a nonprofit in California, is surveying both parents and staff to gauge how comfortable they feel in returning to work after being closed for months. Implementing any new changes will fall to the more than 1.5 million people working in the industry.
"These are primarily women. Many of them have their own families to think about and that they're concerned about," said Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley. "And they're also members of the very communities who we're hearing are being disproportionately impacted by this virus, low-income communities, African American communities and Latino communities.”