JENNIFER SIMPSON, who runs a family daycare in Southbridge, will have lost more than $33,000 in tuition money by the time she reopens August 31.
She has spent nearly $6,000 preparing to reopen – buying expensive gates to divide her space, purchasing protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and buying extra art supplies and shelving.
Simpson, who is getting by on unemployment benefits and her husband’s income, is frustrated that the state is offering reopening grants to daycares that accept children with state subsidies, but not to businesses like hers whose families pay privately.
While she could raise tuition prices, Simpson said she doesn’t want to do that because many of the middle-class families she serves are already hurting due to the pandemic.
“A lot of them been out of work just as we have,” she said. :”Now they have to pick up the slack for the state not assisting?”
Childcare providers – who are vital to letting working parents return to the office – were hard-hit by the mandated closures in March and are facing significant costs to reopen. State officials say they must use their limited funding to prioritize childcares that serve the most vulnerable children, those who are eligible for state subsidies. But private pay providers say they need help, too. Without additional assistance, some are likely to close.
Already, 163 early education providers have told the Department of Early Education and Care that they plan to close permanently. Others have not yet formalized their reopening plans. Of the state’s approximately 8,200 childcare providers in pre-COVID times, 5,600 received approval to reopen as of August 11 and 800 are awaiting approval.
“I’m very afraid that we will lose significant capacity to care for children,” said US Rep. Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who has been advocating for more federal funding for childcare. “This was a system under great stress and suffering from underinvestment before the pandemic, and, like with so many issues, the pandemic has exacerbated the trends that were already moving in the wrong direction.”
The federal CARES Act gave Massachusetts $45 million for childcare. The Department of Early Education and Care and the Legislature decided to use that money to fund emergency childcare, which remained open during the pandemic, and for grants to childcare providers that receive state subsidies to care for children who are poor or otherwise vulnerable, such as those in the foster care system.
Recently, 272 private pay family childcare providers sent a joint letter to numerous state and federal officials asking why they were shut out from receiving federal or state aid. About half the state’s providers get no public subsidies. Statewide, centers lost an estimated $250 million a month in private pay tuition during the pandemic, according to the Department of Early Education and Care.
“Why…are Private Pay Child Care Providers being shunned? Excluded? Discriminated against? Are we really not vital? Is what we do day after day, some of us for decades, of no value?” the providers wrote. “We are barely holding on, grasping tightly to the hope that someone will throw us a line, fight for us, hear our voices.”
The letter was spearheaded by Gina Tiberio Hamilton of Shrewsbury, who has worked in childcare for 30 years. Hamilton, who typically cares for six children each day, lost $32,000 in tuition during the closure. She reopened a couple of weeks ago, after shelling out $1,500 for an air purifier, outdoor canopy, outdoor rug, cleaning supplies, cubbies, gloves, and masks.
During the shutdown, Hamilton received $267 a week in state unemployment benefits and $600 in federal benefits. She has never been asked to accept a voucher-subsidized child and is upset that subsidized centers not only received payments during the shutdown but are now the only ones eligible for reopening grants. “We just feel like private pay has been disrespected and left out,” Hamilton said.
Patty Johnson, who has run a daycare in her Uxbridge home for almost 40 years, said when she heard the grants were restricted to subsidized providers, “it was like a knife in my heart. I went wow. Is that how little we mean?”
Blair Brown, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, said in a statement, “EEC is prioritizing support for child care providers who have a subsidy agreement with EEC in order to ensure stable care for the Commonwealth’s vulnerable children.”
Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and House chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, backed the Baker administration’s approach. “Given that the state currently has its own huge deficit, absent more federal dollars we’re prioritizing the limited dollars we have for the most vulnerable children,” she said.
Generally, Peisch said, the state has little to do with private pay programs other than licensing them. And private pay providers – unlike subsidized ones – can raise more money from families, she said.
Lawmakers did create a public-private trust fund, with $500,000 in public money, that will accept donations to help childcare providers find access to funding. An economic development bill, which remains in a conference committee, calls for the creation of a commission to examine the financial impacts of COVID-19 on early education.
Clark has called for $50 billion in short-term relief for childcare providers through the Community Development Block Grant Program. That money, if approved, would be available to private pay providers. She has also called for a $10 billion program of grants to help childcare providers make facility improvements. Both proposals have passed the House, but not the Senate.
Clark said the $45 million Massachusetts got from the CARES Act wasn’t enough. “With this [additional federal money], we hope it can have a broader use by all types of providers and after -chool care providers so that we can really shore up the system and stabilize it,” Clark said.
It is unclear whether closures will result in a short-term shortage of childcare. Anecdotally, many providers say parents have been hesitant to send their kids back, to child care and enrollment in many centers is low as parents continue to work from home. But that also makes it tougher to stay afloat.
Johnson is licensed for 10 children but expects only three or four to return immediately when she reopens – not enough to make a profit. But, she said, “If I don’t open and wait for a vaccine, there will be nothing. Everyone will have found different places except my teachers.”
Beth Yacteen, of East Longmeadow, is also licensed for 10 children but only serving four right now.
Yacteen charged parents half-price for 11 weeks while she was closed during the pandemic, but committed to keeping their fees at half-price for that same amount of time once they returned. She got a $10,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan, but estimates that she lost around $25,000 in income.
Yacteen is frustrated that she is ineligible for any state childcare money. “I feel like we’re not looked at as an essential, critical part of this economy,” she said.