Daycare centers shouldered big costs, shutdowns from COVID-19. Some say they can’t reopen without more aid.

Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller (Commonwealth Media Services photo)

Nearly all of Pennsylvania’s 7,000 child care centers closed their doors on a moment’s notice this spring as the state weathered the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – and more than 200 now say they plan to shutter for good.

A thousand more could join their ranks if the state doesn’t provide at least $200 million to aid the child care sector, researchers warned on Monday. 

A new report by Penn State Harrisburg found that the pandemic is poised to create $325 million in new costs for Pennsylvania day care centers, which have implemented new regimens for staffing and hygiene while watching their enrollments and revenues plummet.

Day care providers told researchers in a survey that they’ve had to hire new staff, reduce class sizes, and extend their operating hours to comply with social distancing and cleaning protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The new expenses have thrown an already precarious industry into a tailspin, researchers say.

“The business model for childcare only works with full enrollment,” Philip Sirinides, director of Penn State Harrisburg’s Institute of State and Regional Affairs, the report’s author, said Monday on a call with reporters.

“If providers are operating below capacity, as they expect to be doing so for at least for several months, that will increase [costs],” he added. 

When child care centers closed this spring, many stopped collecting tuition payments and furloughed staff. But they still had to pay rent and insurance costs. 

Providers who resumed operations had to cut down class sizes while altering their daily operations. Parents had to stagger drop off and pick up times to avoid crowding, Sirinides said, and centers had to devote time and manpower each day to sanitizing their facilities.

State officials say those guidelines have kept children and staff safe this summer. 

Day care centers have reported a total of 213 COVID-19 cases among children and staff since March, data from the Department of Human Services show – a figure that officials characterized Monday as being “pretty low.”

But the protocols are expensive. Pennsylvania lawmakers allocated a cumulative $107 million from Pennsylvania’s CARES Act Funding this summer to help child care centers stay afloat. The Human Services Department expects to distribute another $116 million of aid this month, officials said Monday.

However, child care centers that have stayed closed throughout the pandemic have missed out on months of revenue. Providers told researchers they’re worried about starting operations back up in the fall, since they don’t have enough cash on hand to make payroll for the first weeks that they resume business.

Experts say that could create logistical nightmares for parents and child care providers this fall, especially since a growing number of children are expected to return to school on part-time schedules.

Day care providers expect to see a rush of demand this fall as parents of school-aged children try to cobble together full-time child care arrangements. 

Sirinides recommends that the state pass a $209 million aid package to help day care centers survive the autumn. Those funds would help offset the costs to maintain facilities during the shutdown, ensure two weeks of payroll to rehire and pay staff, and to implement the state’s COVID-19 protocols when they’re back in business. 

If they don’t, his research indicates that 1,000 child care centers, or roughly 14 percent of the licensed facilities in the state, could be in jeopardy of closing for good – a prospect that state officials say would dampen the economy as parents try to go back to work. 

“The loss of any child care providers is a significant loss for Pennsylvania and an added burden for working families who need access to high-quality, affordable child care,” Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said. “We need to do everything we can to help this industry recover and continue providing its crucial service. Our economy depends on it.”