WHYY: Child care centers in Pa.: bellwether for how tricky it will be to fully reopen economy
May 18, 2020 by Miles Bryan

In some ways, Rachel Johnson is grateful for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s mid-March business shutdown order: it took the agonizing decision over whether to close the child care center she runs with her husband out of their hands.

“It was sad and scary, but in a way, easy, because the choice was made for us,” said Johnson, 36, who runs Step by Step School for Early Learning in Centre County. “It was like, ‘Ok, we have to close.’ There was nothing to think about.”

Before the pandemic, Step by Step had three locations in the State College area, serving 300 children and employing 65 teachers. The business was able to get a waiver to remain open to serve the children of essential workers, but only 14 of them kept coming, forcing the Johnsons to lay off all but five teachers. The business got a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, but the couple has struggled to pay their most pressing bills without violating its terms.

They’ve mostly gotten by on savings instead.

On May 8, their fortunes shifted: Centre County was one of the first 24 counties that Gov. Wolf moved into the ‘yellow’ phase of reopening. In that phase more businesses are allowed to open, as well as all child care providers. Thirteen more counties entered this phase on Friday and 12 more will on May 22.

The Johnsons reopened their center May 11, but it wasn’t a simple call.

“Our job is to provide [parents] with care so they can go and do their job” said Robert Johnson, Rachel’s husband. “[But] the financial aspect of it, if you would sit there and crunch numbers, it would not be an easy decision.”

The problem is demand: only a few dozen of Step by Step’s kids have returned so far. Most of their parents are still working from home, the Johnsons said, and many are uneasy about sending their kids into any kind of group setting. Meanwhile, the couple is still paying rent, mortgages, and utilities on facilities that can hold many more students. They’ve also rehired twenty of their teachers, allowing for a much smaller a student-to-staff ratio than normal — a costly decision — so the center can maintain small groups and minimize cross-contamination.

All this, Rachel said, has put them in a somewhat uncomfortable position.

“You almost look like the bad guy by trying to convince [parents] to send their kids back,” she said. “Going out there and saying ‘support your local economy’ is going to make you look bad if at the same time you are saying ‘put your kids in danger.’”

As idled businesses begin to restart and more employees return to the job across the state, child care providers in ‘yellow’ counties say they are reopening slowly, if at all. The pace is driven by new safety guidelines, and by nervous parents reluctant to send their kids out of the house. If the industry doesn’t see demand pickup or receive financial aid soon, advocates warn, providers could begin closing for good — possibly slowing the state’s economic recovery.

“Child care is a business, like all of the others that are struggling through this crisis,” said Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children. “But this business is the one that everyone else relies upon, to make sure families can work.”

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