Pandemic Putting Precarious Child Care Industry in Danger of Collapse

by Sean Slone, CSG senior policy analyst

As parts of the country work through reopening parts of the economy, there is growing concern for an industry that pre-coronavirus allowed parents with small children the opportunity to maintain their careers: the child care industry, 90% of which is privately run.

HuffPost reports that by one estimate, half of licensed child-care operators won’t make it through the pandemic. More than 335,000 child care workers lost their jobs in April. Monthly costs to sustain the sector during months of continued shutdowns are estimated at $9.6 billion. And, as HuffPost notes, it doesn’t appear that help is on the way anytime soon. Advocates and child care providers are pushing for a $50 billion bailout as part of the next coronavirus stimulus bill. But the bill unveiled by House Democrats earlier in May that appears to be meeting opposition in the Senate included just $7 billion in block grants to states to use on child care.

While nearly half of the nation’s child care centers shut down as stay-at-home orders took effect this spring, others remained open to serve the children of essential workers on reduced schedules, at reduced capacity and at much less than their regular income. Parents who could telework or who were reluctant to send their kids to day care during the pandemic kept them away.

Now as sectors of the economy reopen in some areas, employees in some cases are being called back to work before child-care facilities open, USA Today reported. If fiscal challenges prevent some facilities from reopening or if they can’t convince parents they’re taking the necessary precautions to keep kids safe and additional facilities can’t survive, a lack of child care around the country could become one of the biggest barriers to economic recovery, experts say. The Center for American Progress has predicted that as many as 4.5 million child-care slots could simply disappear permanently.

Those facilities that remain in business are likely to face an uphill battle with increasing expenses and force them to increase prices, making affordable child care even less affordable than it was pre-pandemic at a time when many Americans will face economic hardship, CNBC noted recently.

States & the Child Care Industry

Some states have been stepping up to try to help. The Minnesota legislature in late March authorized $30 million in grants to help child care providers stay in business and serve children of essential workers. But as in many states, Minnesota’s tax revenues have been falling even as the state has increased spending in response to the crisis.

Child-care centers will likely also be challenged to meet new state guidelines in some places for the reopening of such facilities. Guidelines in Oregon, which went into effect May 15, maintain the same child-to-adult ratios as the state mandated for emergency centers and continue to prioritize care for children of essential workers, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. But the guidelines also anticipate more parents returning to work in the coming weeks and say the centers “may also serve all families who return to work in phased reopening.” The new rules also relax requirements that centers care for the same children each day in 10-child “stable cohorts.” Centers are required to log arrivals and departures of children and adults doing drop-off and pick-up.

The state of Utah, which created 36 exclusive child-care sites to serve children of essential workers through the temporary One Utah Child Care System, has also been reopening businesses and updating emergency guidelines in recent weeks, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Maximum group sizes were recently raised from 10 to 20 people. To have more than 20 people in a child-care facility, the provider must have a separate room with walls higher than 6 feet to separate groups. That has required some facilities to improvise and revise the way the businesses are laid out.

The phased reopening of businesses in Ohio will allow day care centers to reopen May 31 with limits on the number of children, The Akron Beacon Journal reported. For infants and toddlers, that means six per room; for preschoolers and school-age children it’s a maximum of nine per room. Staff members are required to wear masks and take other precautions and children will be required to wash their hands frequently.

As the newspaper noted, “The shrinkage of room capacities and virus precautions will cause financial problems for day cares, and potentially lock some parents out of placing their children. But the state will use $60 million in federal CARES Act virus funding to subsidize their operations,” Gov. Mike DeWine said.  

While many child-care centers in the state have been closed since March 25, just over a thousand were allowed to remain partly open to serve parents working for essential businesses.

The Last Best Hope for Child Care?

Many child-care advocates still believe the best hope for saving their industry would be a lifeline from the federal government. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent May 13, 45 different groups urge Congress to take action and describe what’s at stake.

“Our nation’s child care system is on the brink of collapse, with serious implications both now and in the future,” they write. “Without sufficient relief, there will not be a child-care system to return to as we look to rebound from this crisis. Parents, especially women, will not have the care they need to go back to work or school, employers will be unable to restart without workers and our economic recovery will be jeopardized.”