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State's child care centers struggle to stay afloat in shutdown

by Doug Thompson, Tony Holt | May 7, 2020 at 7:02 a.m.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services at Donaghey Plaza in Little Rock is shown in this April 28, 2019 file photo.

Half of the state's child care providers and all of its public schools remained closed Wednesday as government and private business seek to revive the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, state figures show.

Child care providers that remain open are running at far less than their usual capacity, according to those interviewed.

"We received emails and other complaints about centers staying open and had to explain that health care workers and first responders had to have somewhere safe to take care of their kids," said Tonya Williams, director of the division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education at the state Department of Human Services. "They could not do their jobs without that."

No child under professional child care nor any providers working in the field have reported ill with covid-19, so far, Williams said. The state normally has about 2,000 licensed child care centers open at one time with a capacity of 171,000 children. On Wednesday morning, she said, the state had about 960 centers open with a total capacity of fewer than 90,000.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Williams and Carolene Thornton, director of Child Care Aware of NWA, were interviewed by telephone from their homes.

The pandemic's effects on child care is statewide, Williams said.

"We've had health emergencies before, but they only affected one location or region. It was random. This is very different," she said.

The Human Services Department follows the lead of the state Department of Health in dealing with disease outbreaks. Whatever the Health Department says do, the Human Services Department does in those situations, she said.

Directives include masks for children and social distancing. Also, strict rules about keeping clean and regularly disinfecting were already in place in the normal course of business, she said. The crisis has powerfully reinforced the need for those rules, she said.

Child Care Aware of NWA is a nonprofit group that supports and advocates for child care facilities in Benton, Washington and Madison counties. Thornton said she wonders how many centers in the region will survive the pandemic's shutdown. Even though, before the pandemic, child care availability in the region was tight.

"More child care, particularly for infants and toddlers, was desperately needed before this pandemic hit," Thornton said.

Still, even during more prosperous times, many parents in Northwest Arkansas were struggling to afford child care on their low incomes, she said.

Williams expects most centers statewide to recover, saying that only one center has notified her department that it will be closing. That one is in north-central Arkansas and was considering closing before the pandemic, she said.

The easing of restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Arkansas continues. Hair, nail, massage and tattoo salons were allowed to reopen Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted his ban on out-of-state recreational travelers staying in Arkansas hotels and overnight in state parks. Restaurants, on a limited basis, will be allowed to offer on-site dining as of Monday.

That puts more people back to work, but it also creates a child-care problem.

Northwest Arkansas has a high number of young parents who moved there for economic opportunity and now live far from parents and other family members who might help care for their children, Thornton said.

"I had one dad who called who's a single parent," Thornton said. "He has one child who's 3 and another who's almost 2. He's at a loss. He is being told he has to go back to work, and the child care he was using is closed. He told me he can't afford to lose his job."

The need is there, but "child care has never had a high profit margin," Thornton said. The centers still open face reduced enrollment and higher operating expenses, and child care workers tend to be either younger or older, she said. Older workers may be reluctant to return to their child-care jobs as long as the coronavirus persists, Thornton said.

Also, the centers that are "open are desperate for cleaning materials," she said.

Williams said finding a cleaning products supply has become a challenge across the state.

In addition, child care centers face requirements for federal programs that make no allowances for pandemics. For instance, there are assistance programs that require a child care center to admit a certain percentage of children from low-income families. If the adults of low-income families are not working, they have no reason to take their children to day care.

"Low income means high risk in this economy," Thornton said.

Child care operators Greg Houser of Fayetteville and Nancy Branch of Little Rock were interviewed by phone from their places of business, which have remained open throughout the emergency.

Butterflies & Frogs child care is operating at two-thirds its normal capacity, Houser said. He and his wife, Debra, advised clients to stay home if at all possible, he said. The children now at the center are mostly those of emergency-response and health care workers.

Staying open hasn't been easy. "Before we got the federal dollars, I had to ask people on the payroll if they could wait a couple of days before I could write them a check," Houser said. He was fortunate to get a no-interest, forgivable loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, he said, but getting the assistance took several weeks.

The Fayetteville location of Butterflies & Frogs employs several students from the University of Arkansas. They left when the university closed its campus, saving him from having to decide which workers to let go and allowing other staffers to work more hours for more pay, Houser said.

"Between the business grants and the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], I'm sure we can sustain things for the next 60 to 90 days," Houser said. "After that, I don't know. We don't know what life is going to look like."

Parents using his child care may not be employed after this pandemic. Even those employed may face economizing choices that they never considered before.

"My barber is my friend, but I just cut two of my boys' hair and saved $30 or $40. Are people going to start making those kinds of decisions after this is over?" he asked.

Branch, owner of Nana's Care in Little Rock, said she lost nearly one-third of her clients at the start of pandemic. She has managed to remain in business while incrementally recouping some of her losses by accepting new clients. She credits a strong word-of-mouth and a clientele that had the financial and employment flexibility to keep their children in day care as the main reasons she's stayed afloat.

"I lost some of the babies due to the parents' fears or what have you," she said. "Overall, we've been OK."

Branch said the prospect of a return to normalcy has been the hope. Hutchinson, she said, keeps making "proclamations" about reopening the economy. That gives her and others in her business hope.

That also means that some of the parents who pulled their children out of her day care may return. A few already have, she said.

Branch said her day care can operate with a maximum of 51 children. As of Wednesday, Nana's Care had 40 children.

Metro on 05/07/2020

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