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caption: Seattle Preschool Program teacher Hien Do, center, dances with her students on Wednesday, June 28, 2017, at the ReWA Early Learning Center at Beacon, in Seattle, Washington. The center is currently closed due to Covid-19.
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Seattle Preschool Program teacher Hien Do, center, dances with her students on Wednesday, June 28, 2017, at the ReWA Early Learning Center at Beacon, in Seattle, Washington. The center is currently closed due to Covid-19.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Child care centers struggle to stay afloat as kids stay home

Chelon Jackson usually serves a dozen children at her family home child care center, Lovable Nest, in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood.

But because of coronavirus, two families have unenrolled in recent weeks, and many others bring their kids intermittently.

On Monday, she figured, ‘It’s a new week, they’ll be back,’” Jackson said, and fixed a big breakfast for the children’s arrival.

“I had made all these sausage and hashbrowns. And I had one child that day,” she said. “That’s when it hit me emotionally. If it doesn’t get better, what am I going to do?”

About one quarter of all licensed child care centers in Washington state – 1,358 at last count –have closed due to the coronavirus. Those centers served as many as 62,000 children.

Child care providers that remain open struggle with new, stringent safety protocols and dwindling enrollment, raising concerns about the state of child care once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

Jackson said she has asked parents to pay half their tuition if their children don’t attend. “They can’t afford [full tuition],” she said. “I don’t have the heart to charge them.”

At Rainbow School in Lakewood, director Miranda Kirk has also been charging families half-tuition keep their kids home temporarily. She usually serves 11 children. Some days now, it’s down to four.

“The biggest challenge is just the logistics that come with that, the loss of income, the ambiguity of it all,” Kirk said.

As with many child care facilities, Rainbow School has a combination of families that pay out-of-pocket and families that receive government tuition subsidies from state or local governments.

Kirk said temporary changes to state subsidy payments have been a huge help this month, like the state allowing providers to receive the full subsidy for children even if their attendance is spotty, and covering families’ co-payments during the crisis.

“That’s a big change for them,” said Ross Hunter, secretary of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. “They have a stable payment system. That seems really important.”

"We want to make sure that our child care providers are still in business when we get to the end of the emergency phase of this," Hunter said.

“The economics of childcare are such that margins are so small,” said Deeann Puffert, the head of Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit advocate for families and child care providers. “What we're seeing is some programs that can barely stay afloat for a couple of weeks because of that.”

Puffert said the providers most likely to close their doors right now are those that mainly serve families who usually pay full tuition.

That’s because many of those families have pulled their children from care, either because they are working from home and want to keep their children home and virus-free, or because the parents lack job security, but don’t qualify for subsidies.

“Families that sort of fall in that in that $50,000 to $70,000 [income] range, let's say in a place like Seattle, are saying ‘I better cut my cut my costs just in case I lose my job,’” Puffert said.

Some parts of the state have been hit especially hard by child care closures: half of all licensed facilities in Jefferson County have closed during the pandemic, 43 percent in Whatcom County and 40 percent in Thurston County.

Providers have also struggled to adhere to new safety protocols.

“A huge problem in the industry has been getting supplies,” said Miranda Kirk of Rainbow School. “We have to have a minimum requirement of bleach and a minimum requirement of every food group.” Limited storage capacity at her center means they need to do their shopping “more or less weekly,” Kirk said.

At one point, Kirk said, they couldn’t find toilet paper, and were down to just two rolls. “There was a question of whether or not we were going to have to close temporarily just to make sure that we could acquire supplies for the week,” she said.

At Lovable Nest Child Care, Jackson said she gets calls at least twice a week from the Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning to find out what she needs to keep her doors open.

“They brought me gloves, masks, I have everything you can think of,” Jackson said. But maintaining the required amount of distance between children is still difficult, she said.

“If they’re talking about six feet of space, that’s not as easy in home day care, because you’re limited in your space,” Jackson said. “Take meals, for example. We eat in a kitchen, not a cafeteria.”

Jackson said many of the parents she serves work at local hospitals, and have been under immense strain. Despite that, she said, she has been unable to have her usual heart-to-heart talks with them at pick-up and drop-off because they now must drop their children off at the door, and not come inside per state regulations.

“I want to tell them it’s okay, I got your back, those kinds of things,” Jackson said. “But we can’t have those kinds of conversations outside, where anyone can hear.”

At Naturally Kidds preschool in Tacoma, provider Alyssa Kidd said complying with the new rules about sanitation meant she had to remove 90 percent of the toys and activities from her in-home facility because they couldn’t be sanitized. Curtains, pillows and rugs had to go, too.

Kidd decided to close her preschool a few weeks ago over because she has pulmonary issues that make her acutely vulnerable to Covid-19. Now, she said, federal aid is her best hope – she’s waiting to see if she qualifies for pandemic unemployment insurance, and is considering applying for the $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan for small businesses.

In Seattle, Chelon Jackson said the situation is like nothing she’s seen in 30 years as a child care provider. She had planned to retire in 10 years, she said, but now doesn’t know that she’ll even be able to stay in business that long.

“I feel hopeless about the future,” Jackson said.

Until there is a vaccine for Covid-19, or a cure, she said, “I don’t think child care is going to ever be the same.”