When state Rep. Tracy Ehlert opened her at-home child care center to accommodate families impacted by the pandemic, she expected a wave of children needing somewhere to go now that schools are closed.
What Ehlert and other child care providers have experienced in Iowa, however, is a decline in business so severe it is threatening their ability to stay open.
Data this week from the Iowa Department of Human Services show 171 registered child development homes and 969 licensed child care centers have closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ehlert said.
“I usually have — even for my summer program — I usually have a two- to three-year waitlist,” she said. “I have not received a single call this whole time, other than my families that I’ve already previously had enrolled.”
Ehlert, elected in 2018 to represent House District 70 in Cedar Rapids, limited her services at B2K Learning Center to a summer program once she got elected. Ehlert’s basement serves as her child care space, with its own entrance, exit and backyard play area. Typically, for her summer program, she accepts about eight children ranging in age from preschool to nine years old. Currently she serves between three and five school-age children.
“Not a ton,” Ehlert, of Cedar Rapids, said of the low enrollment. “Almost not enough for me to stay open financially because prices of everything have went up, too — cleaning supplies, food, and then we need so much more cleaning supplies. What I would normally go through in a month is closer to what I’m going through in a week right now with all the extra sanitizing and disinfecting each day.”
The need for cleaning supplies was dire, Ehlert said, given how products were flying off the shelves nationwide. DHS only recently connected providers with regional resources to get supplies, but not everything.
“Funding is really what these programs need,” she said.
As of Friday morning, 10,601 child care slots were open across the state, according to a resource map compiled by DHS.
“What we saw with child care is, we weren’t required to shut down so programs remained open,” Ehlert said. “We thought we were going to get this big surge of kids with all the schools canceled. We thought, oh, we’re going to need school-age care across the state. And it didn’t end up happening because so many people got laid off so quick or had the ability to work from home. So now we’re seeing that programs are closing because they literally have zero children enrolled right now. We never have that many openings.”
Though the state was quick to roll out guidance for child care providers once widespread closures started happening mid-March, Ehlert said the directions they received “were super loose” and based on “recommendations” rather than explicit directives.
“It was, ‘Here are some best practices,'” Ehlert said. “So programs were confused on, do we have to go down to 10 individuals per classroom? Is it a requirement or just a recommendation? Do we have to close if we’re exposed to the virus? A lot of it was really loose.”
Funding for Iowa from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was used in part to craft a “sustainability plan” with short-term funding for providers, Ehlert said. But what was proposed “is not going to be enough.”
“It wouldn’t even cover tuition for one child for a month in my program,” she said. “And I don’t charge high prices. I’m like right in the middle. It’s not going to be enough for homes or centers.”
With the legislative session suspended until at least May 15, upon return, Ehlert was hopeful more money could be diverted to early education in the form of grants for providers or hazard pay for child care workers who have remained open to help support essential workers.
“I think for child care we’re really not going to know our loss of programs and our loss of slots until next year,” Ehlert said. “Because I think we’re slowly — unless these programs all the sudden fill up with school-age kids — I think we’re slowly going to see more programs leaving us even after things open back up.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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