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Business and Economy

Report: More Than 40% Of Maine Childcare Centers Are Operating At A Deficit, Urgent Relief Needed

A Valley of the Sun YMCA staff member takes the temperature of a child before she enters child care.
A Valley of the Sun YMCA staff member takes the temperature of a child before she enters child care.

When COVID-19 hit Maine last year, many businesses and schools were forced to close their doors putting childcare in flux for families. In the fall, remote and hybrid learning schedules only further complicated the equation. A new report from several childcare groups takes a look at the challenges facing the state's childcare industry a year into the pandemic, and why things might look more promising in the months ahead.

To learn more about them, reporter Robbie Feinberg spoke with Tara Williams, the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Robbie Feinberg: So this latest survey, it looks at where things stand a year into the pandemic at this point. So where do things stand? What are some of the biggest issues that you continue to see providers dealing with at this point?

Tara Williams: Last spring, what we saw was mostly a lot of focus on what was going to be the financial impact of an initial closure with a lot of people expecting that to only be two weeks. For many that turns into two to three months, sometimes more, and kind of grappling with what federal relief funds might come could folks access PPP and, and it's important to note within childcare, there's different types of programs. So we have home based family childcare programs and then we have centers, some of which are very small facilities, and some are larger. There were different funding streams that were available to different types of programs during some of the past year. What we see reflected in this survey is a lot of what started to happen in the fall, which was [the question]: 'Now that I'm reopening or for those that stayed open now that I could, you know, bring back more children. How will I do that with CDC guidelines? How will I staff?'

One Piece of the report that really floored me a bit is that it said more than 40% of child care centers are operating at a deficit at this point. How are providers continuing to get through this a year after the pandemic began?

Yes, I think that was something that stuck out to me in this survey and in the data we collected, because what we're hearing a lot in the news right now, which is true and is great is is the money that's coming and the huge amount of federal money that's coming into Maine for so many things, including childcare. But what's in this data, and in this survey that we're hearing on the ground is that the positive effects of that have not really yet hit the childcare sector, that money has mostly not arrived, and of the federal relief funds that have come through for many programs, it's not really method need. But core reason that so many programs are still operating at a deficit is that they're not fully enrolled. So if they have the capacity to serve, say, 60 children, they may currently be serving 30, or 40, or 50. And doing that for months at a time creates this ongoing situation in which you don't have enough revenue to cover costs, and so you're just operating at a deficit. And that's what we're seeing, particularly in childcare centers in Maine.

Is there an urgency in getting that money as quickly as possible to child cares right now?

So far, our state and our state departments have done an excellent job over the last year that when money comes in, they get it out quickly. So I don't anticipate that being a problem. But I think it's also pointing out that the need is quite urgent and it is heightened to a point that it's going to take some big structural changes to address a lot of the problems because a lot of them didn't really start with COVID. They just got heightened during COVID. So I think we're going to need to look at more than relief funding, we're going to need to look at the way the system is set up, and particularly the workforce and the teachers who who do this work and childcare and how they're supported and how we improve working conditions and wages and benefits.

Can these tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and you know, new federal and state funds, can they alone address the structural issues and fix a lot of what you're talking about?

I think that the relief funds that are coming dedicated to childcare are going to be really important to address urgent needs and the stabilization of the sector, especially because a whole group of those funds are going to go directly into programs and can help support things like wages and benefits. There [are] other pieces of this sector that we're going to need some additional policy changes or resources to address, helping families find childcare and having good resources basically like a resource and referral system. We don't have that here in Maine, we're one of the only states without it, and we've been talking about that for years. So we're going to need to develop some more supports for families to access childcare. And we're going to need to develop some longer term solutions for how funding flows into childcare programs so that it's not a system based all on parents have tuition and parents ability to pay, but that we really weave in federal, state and local funds to make this system strong and sustainable.

The report also talks about different proposed legislation that the industry is encouraged by, things like bills for more support for early childhood educators and then another to create more regional coordination to help families access childcare. When we talk about these bills, plus this extra money, how are you feeling about the future of the industry in the months and years ahead?

Even though I know you could see from this report the situation is urgent and it is dire. I am filled with a lot of hope. I am seeing more recognition and understanding in our state among everyone, the population, employers, families policymakers, that childcare is incredibly important to our state in our economy, and we have some unprecedented proposals at a national level. Our president and other leaders nationally are looking at a lot of different ways to support early care and education. So I think we have potential to create a really strong world class childcare system here in Maine.