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A Glimpse into the Child Care Industry: BPC Interviews Providers Across the United States

The COVID-19 pandemic has reemphasized the fact that child care is an essential support for working parents, crucial to children’s successful development, and the backbone of a community’s economic development. Even prior to the pandemic, child care providers operated on thin profit margins and were in need of additional funds to provide quality care for young children and keep their businesses afloat. The onset of the pandemic, however, fractured an already risky business model, leaving providers without certainty that they could maintain their businesses and reliably serve their communities’ children and families. Providers have also struggled to both access and afford personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to help create safe spaces for their children and providers. Despite numerous obstacles, child care providers have risen to the challenge of supporting families and children throughout this crisis.

To better understand the issues child care providers are facing, the Bipartisan Policy Center conducted a series of interviews with both home-based and center-based child care providers in August 2020. These providers self-selected to participate and were asked to provide a voice to the challenges they were facing as they continued to serve their communities through the pandemic. What emerged was a nuanced understanding of the unique position that child care occupies as a small business and as a provider of an essential social service. In these conversations, BPC heard a consistent call for more public investment in child care, tailored to meet the industry’s specific needs.

Several key themes were highlighted through these interviews—and this is what we heard.

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“We have a lot of families that do want to work. They are essential workers, they want to be out there, they want to be working every day…So now not having [schools and child care] is going to have a huge, huge economic hit to our local areas, where we’re going to have a lot of families deciding to stay home rather than be able to work.”
–Laura Larson, Family Focus—Brunswick, ME

Child care is essential to the economic health of the country and to rebuilding the economy as the nation recovers from COVID-19. Laura Larson at Family Focus in Brunswick, ME, stated that working families, burdened with child care and school closures amid the pandemic, need consistent and stable child care to remain in the workforce. Rhonda Rivers of LeafSpring Schools in Charlotte, NC, echoed this argument, stating that child care providers are the “workforce behind the workforce.” Both Ann Elliot of the Family Resource Center in Pittsburg, KS, and Cortaiga Collins of Good Shepherd Preschool and Infant/Toddler Center in St. Louis, MO, made the case for ongoing public funding for child care, without which programs will have no choice but to close, leaving a devastating impact on the economy. Cassandra Brooks of Little Believer’s Academy in Clayton, NC, and Terria Ashby of Bella’s Playhouse in Ulysses, KS, also add that the child care industry has proven itself to be a dependable resource to families and communities throughout this crisis and is therefore a worthwhile investment.

“Facility modifications are very expensive. Any facility modification that we do is not budget dollars that we have.”
–Ann Elliot, Family Resource Center—Pittsburg, KS

Child care facility modifications are often a financial burden for child care providers, who operate their business on slim profit margins and cannot afford either the cost or the time to undertake renovation and construction projects. However, significant facility changes and additional supplies—including personal protective equipment—are currently required for centers to remain safely open in accordance with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ann Elliot, Cortaiga Collins, Cassandra Brooks, and Sarah Goertz of Happy Day Academy in Maize, KS, discussed the challenges of affording facility modifications and equipment that can help mitigate the risk of viral transmission, in addition to the challenge of accessing basic cleaning products at the onset of the pandemic.

“The biggest modification is going to be the additional staff needed. We’ve had to change a lot of our procedures. Having the manpower to take children to and from cars, taking the temperatures, checking the staff in, and asking the health screening questions every day—that takes more manpower.”
–Deidre Anderson, St. Mark Child and Family Development Center—Kansas City, MO

Another cost that child care providers have struggled with is covering payroll, which has been made more difficult because of severe drops in revenue due to reduced enrollment and limited operating capacity. In fact, despite serving fewer children, many providers have needed to hire and train new staff to help with COVID-19 safety operations, such as escorting children from designated parent drop off locations to their classrooms or helping take children’s temperatures. Kerri Newton of Kerri’s Kids Preschool & Babyville in Springville, MO, discussed her experience with staff changes during the pandemic, including the financial cost to her business as well as the emotional burden young children experience when losing consistent and stable caregiving relationships. Laura Larson and Deidre Anderson both explained the logistical and personnel challenges the pandemic has caused and the changes in procedure they have had to implement.

“One of the things I learned is how critically important it is for child care programs to have support and some sort of mentorship in relationships with their lenders.”
–Rhonda Rivers, LeafSpring Schools—Charlotte, NC

If child care providers had stronger relationships with their banks and were recognized as part of the small business community, they might have better access to financial supports to help them pay for these myriad operating costs. As Rhonda Rivers explains, relationships with lenders are critically important to helping providers access loans and financial resources. Yet, through the COVID-19 pandemic, many providers have struggled to access funds available to them, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, because of a lack of human or financial capital to work through the various complicated application processes. “If you did not have that good relationship with your bank and didn’t have someone that you talk to on a regular basis, it was a lot more difficult,” said Rivers. While some providers have faced challenges accessing the PPP loan, Maryum Gibson from Scottdale Early Learning, Inc., in Scottdale, GA, discussed how the PPP loan supported her small child care business through the pandemic, keeping her from making drastic cuts to her program.

“Early learning is important beyond a parent’s ability to work. It really is the next generation of our children and how we are preparing them for school and preparing them for the workforce. I think there’s both a moral and a business case to be made for why children need early childhood education—and specifically, high quality early childhood education.”
–Maryum Gibson, Scottdale Early Learning, Inc., Scottdale, GA

Child care providers are in an essential role of supporting the health and development of young children, and this has never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a commonly held misconception is that child care providers are glorified babysitters—a misinformed belief refuted by decades of science on early brain development. Child care providers help create quality early learning experiences for young children that support a strong foundation for lifelong success, and they have shown their dedication to the families and communities they serve through the ongoing pandemic—even as it puts their health and the health of their families at risk. Emily Barnes of Barnes Child Care in Olathe, KS, Rhonda Rivers, and Maryum Gibson spoke to the demands of nurturing small children and creating healthy spaces for young children to learn, grow, and play during the pandemic—and how they are doing so for minimal wages.

“You have to support working women and their children.”
–Sarah Goertz, Happy Day Academy—Maize, KS

The COVID-19 pandemic has had dire consequences for women’s workforce participation. According to the National Women’s Law Center, in September, four times as many women left employment as men. In an October BPC-Morning Consult survey, BPC found that women with children were much more likely to say they had left work and that women were twice as likely as men to say they left work for caregiving responsibilities due to childcare provider or school closures. Sarah Goertz provided insight on how Congress should think of the child care industry as an opportunity to support women in the workforce.

“It’s a civil rights issue for our children to enter kindergarten with the foundational skills they need to be academically, and emotionally and physically prepared to do school.”
–Deidre Anderson, St. Mark Child and Family Development Center—Kansas City, MO

An untapped opportunity in the quality teaching and care described above is the implementation of a diversity, equity, and inclusion curriculum in child care programs that receive federal funding. As Deidre Anderson states, “We are long overdue to provide more culturally relevant instruction and equitable service to children.” Federally funded programs such as Head Start and the CCDF subsidy are put in place to help reduce income inequality through education, yet we are still far from truly equitable access to quality child care.

“I would like to ask every leader to look at this as a human issue. It is unacceptable to consider this partisan. This is the health and well-being of the most vulnerable people of our population. Children don’t have a voice if not for those who are there to protect them.”
–Emily Barnes, Barnes Childcare—Olathe, KS

BPC is grateful to the many providers who shared their experiences with us this summer. There is bipartisan support for investment in the child care industry and we hope that these interviews will help members of Congress understand the dynamic and nuanced position that child care providers are in and the many ways they serve the American economy at large.

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