American child care providers are still struggling to survive | News

The American child care industry has been crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the virus arrived in earnest in early 2020, around a third of centers have closed and some 111,000 workers have left the sector. To stem the bleeding, Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars, including $39 billion last March under the auspices of the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden. That package included $24 billion in grants to states meant to quickly help providers who were struggling to stay open.

But it’s taken many states a good chunk of a year to even start the application process, let alone get money to those who need it. And now that money has become more important than ever: With the promise of a structural fix for the struggling industry following the demise of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, these ARPA funds are all that stands between many suppliers and closing for good.

Some states like Connecticut did what they were supposed to do, which was to secure funding for providers as early as last June. But others — like Florida, Missouri and Texas — had yet to make the apps available even as of earlier this month. Colorado, Iowa and New Jersey only recently opened their portals, while some states that have already accepted applications have yet to distribute funds. As of mid-January, nine of those states had yet to pay child care providers, according to Stephanie Schmit, director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy. .

After the pandemic hit and lockdowns ensued, Congress included $3.5 billion for child care in its initial bailout package in April 2020 and another $10 billion in a second bailout bill. law in December. But at $39 billion, “the scale of ARPA funding is very different,” said Anne Hedgepeth, senior director of federal and state government affairs at Child Care Aware of America, a network of resource and benchmark for child care. According to early childhood education advocates, one of the biggest challenges states faced was the lack of existing infrastructure to obtain subsidies for child care providers. Prior to ARPA, public funding for child care (and therefore the staffing of the agencies that distribute it) was generally limited and reached only a “small number of providers,” Schmit said.

Most states simply didn’t have the capacity in place to quickly distribute so much money to so many businesses, she said. American child care providers have been dragged from pillar to pillar during the pandemic. Many were forced to close during the initial lockdowns. When they reopened, they were crippled by a lack of staff willing to return, and parents feared sending their children amidst the drumbeat of waves of infection. As the industry contracted, the lack of childcare services forced working parents to stay home, further exacerbating the labor shortage.

Suppliers faced additional challenges. Keeping employees and children uninfected is a costly undertaking. Social distancing and other precautions necessarily limit the number of children who can be safely accommodated, which limits potential income. While much of the US economy has been badly hit by the crisis, the child care industry has been in the eye of the storm.

And the storm has not passed yet. “There is a desperate and continuing need for a lifeline,” Hedgepeth said.

Tim Kaminski owns Gingerbread Kids Academy in Richmond, Texas, which before the pandemic served 230 children along with another 350 children in after-school programs. He said he was still unable to request money from ARPA.

Last year, he received $221,000 under the second bailout, money that allowed him to retain his employees by increasing his wages by $2 an hour. But in March, that money will run out, Kaminski said, and he will be forced to cut workers and programs. Meanwhile, its enrollment is around 75% of pre-pandemic levels at its two main child care centers and around 50% at its five after-school locations, he said.

His ARPA grant, which Kaminski said is expected to exceed $600,000, would cover payroll through the end of the year, he said. But even though Texas officials said the application process would begin this month, Kaminski expressed doubts that the money would arrive on time. “Not knowing how quickly we’ll get that other round of funding is stressful because I don’t have any additional income,” he said. “All things are up in the air right now.”

Francisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, said the agency is currently modifying its systems in preparation for managing ARPA grants. Gamez said 13,386 licensed child care providers (out of 15,606 total operations statewide) will be “invited to apply this month.”

“It’s not the will that’s the problem,” said Kim Kofron, director of early childhood education at Children At Risk, a nonprofit focused on child poverty. It’s that Texas has billions of dollars to reach thousands of suppliers, all routed through a complex government network. The state Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) oversees child care licensing; the TWC distributes grants. “One of the biggest hurdles was getting these two systems talking in agencies,” Kofron said.

But the damage is already done. The number of HHSC-supervised child care businesses has dropped about 9% since February 2020, according to the agency. Suppliers that haven’t disappeared, Kofron said, are “hanging by a thread.”

“We needed help then. But we need it even more now. But even in states where ARPA money has started flowing, child care is still struggling. Tiffany Skaggs runs a small program in Waverly, Iowa, which serves only eight children. For micro-providers like her, the cost of protective equipment and food has become prohibitive. Skaggs said she and her husband took second jobs to pay their bills, including working weekends at a library and entering data online.

Skaggs said the state gave her $500 a month in early 2021 and up to $1,500 a month later in the year — just “a band aid,” she said. Now, the way Iowa distributes ARPA funds could mean that those past grants bar it from receiving additional federal funds.

“We needed help then. But we need it even more now.

“I had to make a lot of tough decisions while waiting for funding,” she said, including capping enrollment. “But I refuse to give up because more family child care programs are closing every week in Iowa.”

Babysitter Kay Strahorn, who runs the Bidwell Riverside Center in Des Moines, Iowa, said she didn’t even know ARPA grants existed until recently. It lost two teachers, which limited its ability to enroll more children. She said she applied for money from ARPA two weeks ago and expected to receive $80,000 this month, but “it sure would have been nice to have those funds. a month ago,” she said. “Iowa kind of dropped the ball on that,” she said. State officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In their defense, Hedgepeth said most states had to build systems for ARPA from scratch while spending months building awareness. Family and home providers were particularly difficult to contact, she said. “It’s not as simple as filling out a form and hoping people will submit their information.”

Yet state governments were often victims of their own bureaucracy. Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is awaiting approval for credit from the state legislature, according to an agency spokesperson. Hedgepeth said Alaska’s decision to partner with the US Department of Health and Human Services triggered a lengthy contracting process. And the Colorado program was delayed because it sent out an RFP outside of its normal network of contractors, according to Schmit.

Conversely, in states that were able to withdraw ARPA money quickly, the funds made a huge difference.

In Connecticut, one of the main goals was to get ARPA grants “quickly and efficiently,” said Elena Trueworthy, director of the state’s Head Start Collaboration Office. Administrators prioritized making the app as easy as possible and worked with existing partners like United Way of Connecticut, which already had relationships with all child care providers in the state, to start the process, she said.

The state said it has already disbursed $108 million in ARPA funds to 2,564 programs. The Bristol Child Development Center is one of them. Maegan Adams, the executive director, asked for the money last May. In June, a first installment of $307,737 arrived, she said. Adams used the money to give staff bonuses (to encourage them to stay) and to fix a leaky roof, among other things. A class of toddlers had to be moved to a teachers’ lounge at the start of the pandemic to allow for social distancing, but ARPA funds enabled him to renovate the old classroom so those children could return safely.

The money enabled the Bristol center to “continue to have a safe environment for children”, Adams said. “It helped us stay afloat.” ARPA funding has helped Connecticut retain “the supply of child care services,” said Beth Bye, commissioner of the state Office of Early Childhood. Connecticut saw 130 fewer daycare center closures last year — at the height of the pandemic — than in 2019, before it even started.

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