Child care closures make back to work plans tough for parents

(Johner Images/Getty Images)
(Johner Images/Getty Images)

Kingsport, Tenn. business owner Bob Feathers operates two entirely separate ventures — a 20-year-old commercial interiors firm with 38 salaried employees and a franchise restaurant with 70 mostly part-time workers who rely on tips to get by. 

Feathers’ biggest operational question right now cuts across both business models: How do you get employees back at work when child care centers are closed?

“I don’t want to come across as callous and uncaring, but it’s very challenging to get employees back,” he said. “They have nowhere to leave their children. And I have a business.”

“There’s so much uncertainty and fear for my employees who have children. As employers it’s become our fear too. And quite frankly, I don’t know how to help.”

Bob Feathers (Photo from Workplace Interiors website)
Bob Feathers (Photo from Workplace Interiors website)

Of the 2,300 licensed child care facilities open in Tennessee before the COVID-19 outbreak, 1,000 are now closed, according to the Department of Human Services. It’s unknown how many of the closures are temporary or permanent.

Nationally, child care policy experts warn as many as half of all child care centers are at risk of permanent closure in the coming months.

Limited access to affordable quality childcare has long been a challenge in Tennessee, said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. 

“Now it’s just deeper and wider,” Wiltshire said. “This presents a really formidable barrier to reopening the economy and getting Tennesseans back to work.”

Nearly two weeks into Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to gradually reopen 89 of 95 Tennessee counties — the state’s major cities have their own timelines — both supply and demand for childcare remain precarious. Some parents who have the ability to work from home and the option to send their young children to child care are choosing not to, out of safety concerns. Meanwhile many child care providers simply cannot afford to open their doors to accommodate reduced attendance while paying for staff. 

“When all those businesses shut down, how are they going to come back with day cares gone?” said Miles Burdine, president and CEO of the Kingsport Chamber. All but one retail store, and all restaurants in the northeast Tennessee city, plan to fully re-open — if they have the workers, he said.

In Chattanooga, the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga had 308 children in its care at the nonprofit organization’s main campus and five offsite centers on Feb. 8.

Today, a skeleton staff cares for just 20 children of essential workers, and four of its campuses are closed, said Katie Harbison, president. 

Those essential worker child care bills are being picked up by a state emergency pandemic fund, but the agency has had to forego collecting fees from all other parents. 

Harbison said her facility, which serves predominantly low-income, single parents, has been luckier than most. The state continues to pay child care subsidies for parents keeping their children at home. Chambliss also landed a federal Payroll Protection Program loan that has allowed it to keep all staff on the payroll. And she has applied for grants from the state’s Department of Human Services. 

“My concern is what happens six months from now when there’s no PPP money, there is no DHS money and we are not at capacity?” Harbison said. 

“I think there’s a lot of concern for the industry for how we can operate going forward given how we’ve always operated with such thin margins. And if we see a drastic decline in parents coming to the sites because they’re not comfortable….I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Many of the child care providers in the Chattanooga area are small operations with little capital in reserve, said Ariel Ford, deputy administrator for the city’s Office of Learning. To help, the city redirected an existing $260,000 grant to provide one-time funding for struggling centers. 

“We exhausted that fund in two-and-a-half weeks,” Ford said. “They were small grants to put a finger on the artery that was bleeding. 

“When we called, providers were crying,” she said. “A lot of child care providers — it’s their livelihoods, their dream, their service to the community and they dream of staying open if at all possible.”

  I think there’s a lot of concern for the industry for how we can operate going forward given how we’ve always operated with such thin margins.   – Katie Harbison

Lindenwood Christian Childcare Center in Memphis closed March 15, but staff continue to connect with 150 children via Zoom, FaceTime and in recored videos reading books, said Josie Wallace, director.

“The lack of coordination of government guidance to child cares has been maddening,”  she said. “Because we are deemed ‘essential’ our industry was allowed to remain open if we wanted but with very little to no guidance about how to stay open safely. Of all the high quality child care centers in Memphis where I have professional contacts, only two remained open.”

Wallace secured a PPP loan to pay her staff and has applied for Department of Human Services grants, but those sources haven’t replaced the center’s income. She said she is deeply concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the child care industry as a whole.

“Many smaller child cares will never reopen, further increasing our country’s already excruciating child care crisis,” Wallace said. Lindenwood has a two to three year long waiting list.

In downtown Nashville, McKendree Daycare, closed March 23, reopening on May 4 to care for 23 children — about a quarter of its usual attendance, said Cindy Ligon, director.

The center has not charged any family tuition since March 23 if their child has not attended, she said.

The facility has spent much of that time developing practices, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that will become part of the new normal for child care centers across the country. 

The low attendance has kept children at McKendree in small groups of no more than six, accompanied by two teachers. 

“We have structured it so the groups never intermingle,” Ligon said. “That’s their only exposure.”

Once a group has left the playground or gym, designated staff who are not caring for children disinfect balls, slides and swings before the next group arrives. 

Children and adults keep an extra pair of shoes at the center, leaving the shoes they arrive in outside the building and getting their temperatures checked when they arrive. 

And all staff and children over the age of two wear a mask — a particularly tough challenge, Ligon said. 

“A child will sometimes say ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,’ and we’ll say, OK, do you want a mask break?’” Ligon said the new policies will be in place for the foreseeable future. 

But the precautions have been unsettling for some parents, already fearful about the little-known effects of COVID-19 on children’s health.

“It’s not like I don’t trust McKendree to keep my child safe,” said Jennifer Hagan-Dier, whose 4-year-old daughter attended McKendree and now remains at home, where both parents are working.

Hagan-Dier is co-founder of the Motherhood As Evolution (MAE) collective, a nascent nonprofit whose launch timeline was accelerated by the pandemic. The group provides a forum for women to discuss work, children and the often unfair division of labor in two-parent households. Last week, the group hosted a virtual coffee hour about childcare in the time of COVID-19.

Many mothers are seeking alternatives that keep their children out of child care centers entirely, including creating pods of families that alternate child care responsibilities or nanny-sharing, she said.

Hagan-Dier said she watched videos sent as part of regular updates to parents from McKendree staff. One showed children outside playing, with masks on.  

“I don’t think my daughter needs to be wearing a mask right now and being socially distant from her friends,” she said.