University City Review: OpEd: Early childhood providers navigate this crisis
May 6, 2020 by Traci Childress, MA, MEd, Executive Director, Saint Mary’s Nursery School, West Philadelphia

I have the privilege to work as the Executive Director of West Philadelphia’s Saint Mary’s Nursery School. As a nonprofit childcare center, we serve 138 children ages 18 months – 12 years. Since mid-March, we have been closed. We rely on 95% private pay tuition and 5% subsidy to fund operations. We have been fortunate to have received a couple of grants, and to have raised some funds from our community, allowing us to keep paying staff while we waited on federal support.

We operate on a very narrow financial margin, maximizing all of our resources and leaving little room for buffer beyond a small savings reserve. Making our capacity to stay afloat and support our staff’s payroll all the more precarious. We did not get the initial round of federal funding through the Payroll Protection program, and without our community’s donations, we would not have been able to keep everyone on payroll while we waited to learn that we did get round two of the PPP Loan. And yet, even as we breathe a sigh of relief for a moment, we are facing the reality of what the future will look like operating in a COVID-19 world and what implications it will have for our viability as a business, given the growing costs associated with achieving a safe learning environment.

 As we’ve navigated this crisis, we’ve been meeting virtually every week as a staff community. We check in — talk about the struggles navigating regulations, loans and safety, share how our zoom offerings for families are going, what can we create for our YouTube channelwhat has been giving us hope, and what visions do we have for the future. 

The governor included childcare providers in thesecond phase of reopening(the yellow phase) – Philadelphia has yet to announce its reopening timeline. Despite the fact that K-12 schools will not be returning this year and will look very different when they do return, childcare will be invited to return to work before the rest of the workforce. This sector is essential to the rest of the city’s workforce. We will have to return in order for everyone else to return. And while young children are not at high risk for getting this virus, they can carry it, and many of us have families and homes where grownups live and where members of our families may have compromised immune systems. We have elementary age children who won’t have care when we return to work. 

Our early childhood workforce is already grossly underpaid. Although childcare is expensive, the cost of services barely covers the cost to run childcare operations and pay our staff. Our teachers should make so much more than they do already, given the impact of early education on early learners (ages 0-5) and our economy’s dependence on our work.

The extended closure of early childhood centers is pushing many centers out of business forever, and those of us who manage to weather this closure with the help of donations, the Paycheck protection program, or state support, are afraid that the cost of reopening with new requirements and decreased enrollment will put us out of business. If we manage to get through this extended closure, we also know that we will need support, innovation, and a whole new way of working to reopen again. As we watch the changing CDC guidelines for childcare centers open right now and listen to our peers operating to serve the essential workforce, it is very clear that reopening will be another crisis for us to navigate. 

Reopening will bring a host of new requirements to our work. The current CDC guidelines mention masks, no contact drop offs and pickups, temperature taking, and smaller group sizes (currently 10 people in a room including staff) just to name a few. We will need support to finance this.

Childcare, whether for profit or non-profit is already a no profitsector. The new requirements will make childcare more expensive for providers to offer, and it will decrease income capacity by requiring fewer children. And yet families cannot pay more. As we face this reopening, we will need state and federal funding to ensure we make it through the year ahead when we will be working with new practices, more needs and more intermittent closures. We’ve always needed this as a sector; but now it is so apparent that childcare is a public good like public school is, and that it needs the support of a system that ensures it can continue to operate, provide quality care to children and support for the workforce in getting back to work.

Read the full op-ed here.