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'My Head Is Just Spinning Around' — What Child Care Centers Face As Mainers Head Back To Work

Courtesy Sadie Rioux
Children at Glory Days Family Child Care in New Gloucester.

When the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country this spring, child care facilities in Maine were designated as “essential” businesses. Many closed anyway, but are now in the process of reopening, some at reduced capacity.

The financial effects of the pandemic have taken a toll on providers across the state, and many are worried that new challenges, and uncertainty about what will happen in the fall, could further squeeze an industry that was already struggling before the coronavirus made its way to Maine.

Karen Bruder says she didn’t get into the child care industry to make money. She says she started Tender Years Learning Center in North Yarmouth to take kids outside and help them learn in all kinds of different ways.

“I wanted to, sort of, change the paradigm. Just get kids engaged and excited and feeling good about who they are and how they learn, even if it’s not the same as the child sitting next to them,” she says. “My rewards were not monetary. I knew I was helping children. And I was doing what I loved.”

A child at Glory Days Family Child Care in New Gloucester.

But the center’s already-tight margins were stretched even further when the pandemic hit in March. Tender Years closed quickly and, at first, temporarily. While she waited to hopefully reopen, Bruder relied on a few grants and used up a small rainy day fund — money she’d planned to use for work on the center’s parking lot.

But a few weeks ago, when she looked at the possible future costs of more cleaning, protective equipment and smaller class sizes, she decided to close the center down for good.

“If I was to have to close again in the fall, due to say, another resurgence or an outbreak, I couldn’t staff my program with subs. And I couldn’t sustain another financial loss,” Bruder says.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and stress across much of the state, especially from our licensed centers, about what the next six months will look like,” says Tara Williams, the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.

Williams says a recent survey of about one-third of providers across the state found that while only about one percent had closed permanently since the pandemic began, many more have taken a major financial hit.

“There are programs that have only had a small financial loss, or that are operating at full capacity. Those are generally our smaller, home-based family child care programs. And then there are programs that have suffered huge losses. They’re reporting between March and June of hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses,” she says.

A child at Glory Days Family Child Care in New Gloucester.

According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, about half of the state’s providers were closed at one point this spring. About 80 percent are now open, and more are expected to follow over the next few months.

The state has offered several financial benefits. It opened up the child care subsidy program to all essential workers, regardless of income. The state also received $11 million from the federal CARES Act that it has dispersed to child cares, and the federal Paycheck Protection Program has helped providers stay afloat as well.

But for many child cares, the major challenge will be making the business model financially sustainable through continued uncertainty.

For some, the daily routine now includes temperature checks once or twice a day. Parents stay in the driveway instead of coming up to the door. And there’s more outdoor time and fewer toys.

Melissa Mattes with Downeast Community Partners, based in Ellsworth, says the pandemic has even changed the basics of feeding or holding a baby.

“We want to be affectionate. So staff have long-sleeved, oversized button-down shirts that they put on, and a mask, when they’re feeding or comforting a child. Then they have to take that off and put a different shirt on when they go to the next child,” she says.

And Mattes says capacity has been dramatically reduced — only 7-10 preschoolers in a classroom instead of the normal 18.

“It’s budget season, and my head is just spinning around, ‘Well, wait a minute, we’re not going to have that revenue, but we won’t have the kids, but we have to have the staff.’ Everybody is going through the same thing, just trying to figure out how to be creative, with staying open for kids and families and meeting all the requirements of our funders, and making a budget that balances,” she says.

With some centers closed and others at reduced capacity, simply finding child care can be difficult as parents have begun heading back into the office.

“I honestly was getting two, three calls a day, people just in desperate need of child care. Because their facilities or providers have closed, either permanently or temporary, and they’re not sure when they’re opening back up,” says Sadie Rioux, who runs a child care out of her home in New Gloucester.

Rioux says the state has offered flexibility during the Maine civil state of emergency, which has allowed her facility to take on a few extra kids and help fill that need — for now.

“But the state of emergency runs out, again, on July 10, I believe. And we won’t know if we’re able to increase our capacity after that or not. So, if the state of emergency doesn’t stay in effect, then all the school kids that are here, they’ll have no child care, if I can’t go over capacity,” she says.

Todd Landry, the director of Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, says that whatever the state decides to do next, his office is working to help even more providers begin to reopen.

“We’re working with our providers, to the extent that we can, to try to see even more reopen, and I think you will see even more reopen in July. And working with others who have decided to wait until August or the fall to reopen, so that we can give them the best information possible,” he says.

Meanwhile, several groups are calling for more funding to support the industry going forward. Williams estimates that child cares in Maine could need up to $10 million every month to stay open.

“We also want to see it for the overall economy in Maine, that we stabilize the child care market and make sure it survives this. Because we know that the majority of young children have both of their parents working, and they rely on child care, so we know that this is important for Maine,” she says.

Williams says that will be particularly important come fall, when many of those parents will be heading back to work and their children may still be learning remotely if school buildings stay closed.