Who’s minding our littlest children? COVID’s impact on local childcare centers

The national debate of late is focused on the return of young people to grade school, high school, and college. But safe, high-quality childcare for infants, toddlers, and other preschool-age children is even more of a concern for parents getting back to work. 

“The economic recovery for our entire country is dependent on access to childcare,” says Lindsay Carson, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County.  

When schools closed in March, parents working remotely from home could keep their school-age children occupied with online learning. That may still be an option for some families as schools begin to reopen this month.  

But that’s an impossible task with a 1-or-2-or-3-year-old. Think of the Zoom conference calls interrupted by a toddler demanding much-needed attention and the family dog barking in the background of mom or dad’s virtual office. The mute button comes in handy, so it may be possible to work like this short-term, most agree, but few believe it’s sustainable long-term.  

Safe, affordable, high-quality childcare provided by a licensed center is essential for businesses to reopen. But in the six months since COVID-19 hit, many childcare centers nationwide, as well as in the Tampa Bay Area, have shouldered a heavy burden, say local industry leaders.  

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the nation’s early childhood education programs were already challenged financially. COVID-19 made it even worse.

What does that mean going forward for parents and children? How will it impact businesses? Will childcare center providers, many of whom are small business owners, be able to stay afloat financially?  

“Childcare was an industry that was very fragile before COVID,” says Carson. “There wasn’t a huge profit margin or a lot of reserves to fall back on. I’m not saying the sky is falling, but just that the industry is vulnerable.”

Imagination Station in St. Petersburg

Jackie Lang is the owner of Imagination Station in St. Petersburg, a preschool that provides early learning care for up to 44 children, ages 2 to 5. 

Initially, when COVID first hit, Imagination Station stayed open. That is until everyone realized the significance of what was happening, says Lang.  

As enrollment started to drop, she made the decision to close the center to give teachers and families the opportunity to shelter in place at home. “I anticipated that I would be closed about a week, but it turned out that we were closed for three weeks,” says Lang.

Imagination Station reopened in April and has stayed open every day since then.

“Many of our parents work at essential businesses and they have no choice -- they have to go to work,” says Lang. “It’s our goal to keep the children happy and safe so the parents can bring their children here and not worry.” 

She is also proud of her staff and the safety precautions they are taking. “Inside our walls, you would never know there was a pandemic out there,” says Lang. “Our teachers have come to work every day with a positive attitude, even when they don’t know what they are going to be exposed to, or what they are going to bring home to their own families.” 

At the moment, the center is operating at 70 percent capacity. That might change as more parents go back to work, but no one knows exactly what will happen, says Lang.  

Fortunately, Lang is able to keep her center open regardless of enrollment and still not worry about funding. About 20 percent of her families are self-pay, says Lang, while 80 percent are part of either Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten or the Florida school readiness program. 

VPK is a free program for all 4-year-olds in the state, while the school readiness program gives younger economically disadvantaged children access to early education. Lang receives funding for those programs through the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County.

“If not for the support we have received from the city and from the Early Learning Coalition, I don’t know where we would be,” she says.

The high costs of reopening

Many privately owned preschools and even some faith-based centers are not so fortunate. Expenses related to COVID-19 have taken their toll.

“The biggest issue is that safety protocols are not free,” says Carson of the Early Learning Coalition.  

There is the cost of buying personal protective equipment for the teachers and special cleaning supplies to sanitize the facility.  Some centers have purchased additional toys and educational materials. In addition, CDC-recommended guidelines limiting the number of children per group mean smaller class sizes. 

“Smaller class sizes reduce the facility’s capacity,” says Carson. “While that’s important, it adds to the expense of running a center.”

There is also the uncertainty of planning for adequate staffing. Licensing guidelines mandate the correct ratio of students to teachers. Child care is a labor-intensive industry. 

If a teacher is exposed to COVID, staffing becomes even more of a challenge.

“They have to quarantine for 14 days and wait for testing results to come back before they can return to work,” says Carson. “Some centers are hiring additional teachers just in case.”

To help through tough times, some centers got a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Association. Others qualified for funding through the Florida CARES grant program or St. Petersburg’s Fighting Chance Fund.  

“Public school providers are not doing to go out of business, but many small business owners and faith-based businesses may find it more difficult,” says Carson. “Their revenue is down at a time their costs are up.”

Yet despite everything, Carson says childcare center providers “have gone above and beyond. They’ve done what they had to do because it’s the right thing to do.”

Finding solutions for families in poverty and at risk

The Juvenile Welfare Board funds 11 child care centers in Pinellas County, serving over 800 children from low-income families as part of its mission to better prepare children for grade school.   

When COVID hit, JWB was prepared to doing everything possible to “provide the safest possible environment,” says COO Judith Warren.  

Childcare staff went through extensive training. Rigorous cleaning protocols were implemented, and best practices such as taking temperatures and curbside drop-off and pick-up became the norm.

Despite these safety precautions, parents were still worried about their children, says Warren. Over the summer, many JWB-funded centers were at half-capacity and attendance was sporadic.

“It’s a difficult time and our parents are trying to make the best possible decision for their families,” says Karen Boggess, JWB performance and evaluation manager.

“We typically serve families in poverty and at risk,” says Boggess, ”so trying to decide if their child will be safe and healthy puts an extra burden on them, while they’re trying to keep their job and put food on the table. “

But as “daunting a decision as it is for parents to make, we definitely want children to return as schools and businesses open up. We know that kids who are visible in the community are going to thrive better,” says Warren.

Creative Play Preschool in Gulfport

Kya Belcher, the owner of Creative Play Preschool in Gulfport, closed for five months when enrollment at her center dropped significantly. Some parents had lost jobs. Others thought it best to keep their children at home. Belcher applied for grants and a PPP loan to help keep the center open. But in the end, it wasn’t possible to stay open.

Now finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Creative Play Preschool will reopen August 12, but with a completely new concept. With overwhelming support from parents, Belcher has shifted the school’s curriculum to an environmental and wellness focus and is in the process of transforming the campus into a mini-farm.

While it has been challenging coping with the financial impact of COVID and the uncertainty of everything, Belcher is now able to see it as a gift. 

“We are thinking outside the box and excited about the changes,” says Belcher. “We have a two-year plan and will be documenting everything to create a model for other centers. We’re teaching children about the earth and about sustainability.” 

On Saturday, August 1, the center held a family farm day with parents, children, and interested community members lending a hand.  An outdoor patio is now a large outdoor classroom with shaded areas, misters, and fans. There are worm boxes, raised gardening beds, compost bins, and a dozen fruit trees with plans for up to a dozen more.
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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.