Childcare providers seek $100M in aid to ride out COVID-19 pandemic

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of southeastern Pennsylvania to a standstill, Latonta Godboldt could typically expect to tend to 13 children each day at her home-based daycare center in North Philadelphia. 

These days, attendance at Small Wonders Family Child Care has dipped to three students. Godboldt says she can continue paying her staff for now, but she and countless other child care providers wonder what’s in store as Philadelphia residents and suburbanites remain under strict orders to stay at home.

A coalition of advocates on Tuesday asked state lawmakers to authorize more than $100 million in stimulus aid for the state’s ailing childcare sector, which they say could collapse as the COVID pandemic disrupts business and employment across the Commonwealth. 

“Our economy is dependent on the childcare sector being up and able to take children,” Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said during a conference call with reporters. “If anyone has an expectation of the economy returning to normal without a healthy childcare sector … they are fooling themselves.”

Childcare centers across the state were forced to close their doors starting on March 13, when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown of daycare centers and schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus virus that causes COVID-19.

Home-based providers, such as Godboldt, were able to keep operating. Some child care centers secured waivers to stay open, even as enrollments dwindled.

But many centers shut their doors entirely, either to protect the safety of their staff or because they fear being sued if they continue to operate during a statewide emergency.

Childcare providers say their incomes could evaporate as more workers face layoffs and furloughs that leave them unable to pay tuition. 

Wolf extended the closure for schools and daycare centers through April 6 on Monday. Advocates say a prolonged shutdown could be disastrous for childcare centers, which have long been plagued by high costs for labor and facilities. 

If approved, advocates say a $100 million appropriation from the state’s General Fund would help centers that rely on tuition payments maintain their payroll and overhead costs until the COVID pandemic abates.

Advocates are also seeking an additional $17 million for centers that collect co-pays, and $50 million to expand pre-k programs through the early summer, which the advocates say will help children overcome learning gaps that came from having their education disrupted.  

They’re also recommending changes to state law and an additional $10 million fund to protect child care centers from legal liability. According to Cooper, many day care centers closed because they can’t risk the liability of being sued if a child contracts the COVID virus at their facility. 

Childcare providers say they may not emerge from the pandemic without state support. 

A survey of more than 600 childcare centers by the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, a non-profit industry trade group, found that one-third of them expect to go out of business if the state-mandated shutdown lasts more than a month. 

“Many childcare providers don’t expect to be in business at the end of this if we don’t get the stimulus we’re asking for,” said Carol Austin, executive director of First Up, a non-profit advocacy organization in Philadelphia. 

Even for childcare centers that have kept operating, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new stresses that drive up costs for staffing and equipment.

Many centers have scaled back their class sizes and ramped up cleaning protocols to minimize the risk of the illness spreading, according to Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit.

Ciminillo said the changes will give children more space to play and encourage smaller groups of students. But it doesn’t grant the centers any relief from staffing costs, since the new protocols require a higher child-to-staff ratio and greater capacity of cleaning and support staff. 

Pennsylvania’s childcare centers employ more than 23,000 workers across the state, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But as advocates pointed out Tuesday, childcare services allow countless other workers across the state to report for duty on their own jobs. 

A January report by the state’s Workforce Command Center found that access to childcare was one of the leading barriers to employment in Pennsylvania. 

The $100 million stimulus the industry is seeking won’t fix the problems that plagued childcare providers before the COVID crisis began, Cooper said. But it will allow centers to maintain their staff and stand ready to receive children as workers in other industries return to work.   

“When essential businesses are able to reopen, childcare must be available to support our economic recovery,” Cooper said. “Lawmakers must realize it will be impossible for Pennsylvania’s economy to rebound with one-third less childcare capacity.”