A report recently released by Niagara University’s Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement reveals some sobering statistics concerning the current and future status of Niagara County’s licensed, center-based child care centers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, the Levesque Institute surveyed 27 child care centers affiliated with the Niagara County Early Child Care Quality Improvement Project (Niagara QIP). Questions focused on their current operating status and the challenges they were facing as a result of COVID-19, and solicited comments on what they needed to protect the children and families they serve.
“Child care centers are faced with the difficult decision either to remain open or to close their center,” said Justina Freedman, Niagara QIP mentor. “Many are forced to decide whether or not they can afford to remain open and serve those children of families who are still employed during the pandemic while continuing to pay staff, or to shut down all together.”
Of the 27 child care centers surveyed, nearly half (48%) have closed for reasons including lack of child attendance; health and safety concerns for workers, children and their families; financial restrictions; and stay-at-home orders from the local government. Many are not certain if they will be able to reopen. Of the 21 respondents, 24% reported they would not survive a closure of any length, while 67% were not confident their center could survive a closure of more than two weeks, and 48% reported they would not survive a closure of more than two months without external support that would allow them to compensate and retain staff, pay rent or mortgages, and cover other fixed costs.
The need for child care has drastically reduced since the executive order issued on March 20 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring most New York state residents to stay at home. As a result, the responding child care centers report that they are running at only 16% of typical capacity, and that the majority of the children they are serving (81%) are children of essential workers.
The drop in attendance has created hardship for both the centers and the families they serve. Only 19% are continuing to charge families full tuition, even when their children are not attending, while 71% are not charging tuition at all. Some have asked for a fee to hold a child’s spot, while others are implementing a sliding payment scale or are allowing families to use sick and vacation days before being charged tuition. Even with the assistance of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, many child care centers are still facing financial difficulty due to loss of tuition revenue.
In centers that remain open, staffing levels have been reduced because of low enrollment. Only 37% of the closed centers have been able to keep staff by creating distance-learning through virtual classrooms. A total of 69% of child care workers have been laid off, and another 11% are no longer working due to health concerns.
Open centers face the challenge of keeping both children and staff healthy and safe during the pandemic, and reported the following needs in order to do so: cleaning supplies, food preparation and hand washing supplies, toileting and diapering supplies, and food.
“The future is uncertain for all Niagara County child care centers, particularly as the pandemic extends into the future for an indeterminate period of time,” said Lynnette Haley O’Stewart, Ph.D., the Levesque Institute’s director of early childhood Initiatives. “Without more investment and available resources, many will not be able to sustain their businesses. The closure of local child care centers will certainly leave lasting scars in the child care community by accelerating the existence of provider shortages in the county, and will severely impact the economic recovery in Niagara County and the Western New York region.”