Carol Gibbs started providing child care from her home in Bellevue 30 years ago. Usually she and her staff are serving 12 kids a day, doing everything from diapering infants to teaching 4-year-olds. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, attendance is down to three.

“We’re like an extension of their home,” she said of the children in her care. “I have an intimate relationship with these families.”

Gibbs said she doesn’t get rich providing care, but she’s been able to pay her bills. If families can’t pay tuition, she’s not sure if that will still be possible without additional support.

Gibbs is not alone in this situation. Despite Gov. Jay Inslee’s affirmation that child care is an “essential” service that must continue, many programs in Washington are closing or operating at a loss because of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s true across the country, too: The National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed 6,000 child care providers nationwide. Only 11% of respondents said they were confident they could reopen after any length of closure without support.

Some help is on the way in the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill the president signed on Friday. Some providers could apply for part of the $377 billion designated for grants and no-interest loans for small businesses.

Even before the pandemic, child care providers operated on thin margins with many fixed costs, like rent or mortgages, staffing costs, and utilities. That’s part of the reason there is a severe shortage of child care options in the state. In 2018, there were 310,000 children under 6 who potentially needed care because their parents or guardians worked — but fewer than 177,000 child care slots statewide. Some centers had waiting lists lasting for months or years.

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For Gibbs, whose husband is deceased, her program is her only source of income. If some of her families cannot keep paying tuition, and some have already said it’s not possible, she may have to take out an equity loan on her house.

“It’s hard to sleep at night,” Gibbs said. “This is unprecedented. I’m at a loss.”

There’s also concern that laying off child care staff because of the pandemic will lead to a longer-term shortage of workers. The field already has a high turnover because of low wages. In Washington, the mean wage for child care workers is about $14 an hour. Though some of them would qualify for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 crisis, the owners of in-home centers do not.

“Every time a Target opens across from an early child center, we know we’ll lose teachers,” said Lauren Hogan, managing director of policy and professional advancement for NAEYC.

The public health crisis is highlighting a fundamental problem with the country’s child care system, she said. “Parents can’t afford to pay the costs of the quality care that’s needed and at the same time, child care providers are subsidizing the expense with their own low wages.” It’s an essential public service that’s being supported by individuals.

In Washington, as of Wednesday, 658 child care programs had closed at least temporarily due to the pandemic. They served nearly 33,000 young children.

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It’s not only home-based care providers who are on the brink. Private schools that offer early childhood options and center-based providers have sent notices to families about needing to continue collecting tuition or risk closing down completely because they also have fixed costs, like rent, wages, and benefits.

“It’s the same situation that we’re in that the food industry and the travel industry are in,” said Dominic Kehoe, the interim director of the non-profit school Three Tree Montessori in Burien.

The school has offered more than $40,000 in extra tuition relief to families as it draws down its reserves to remain in operation. “If people stop paying tuition, we can’t operate as normal, and we have to make cuts,” he said.

The issue extends beyond the pandemic. If centers close and do not have the means to reopen because of staffing or facilities issues, then fewer spots will be available for families when adults start returning to work at physical offices.

“The brutal truth is if my kids don’t have child care when this is all over, I won’t be able to work,” small business owner Debbie Siegelbaum wrote in an email. “And that can’t happen. It’s as simple as that. My family — and many, many others — are scared of what’s ahead.”

Some parents said they’ve felt they have to continue paying tuition during the COVID-19 closures despite not receiving care for fear that they would lose their spots after the pandemic. Others were happy to pay what they could because they needed care in the future and because they had deep relationships with the staff. Some providers expressed guilt over continuing to charge but didn’t see any alternative.

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The state is providing some support for programs that offer slots to low-income families who pay with the limited number of government-funded child care subsidies. Ordinarily, programs only receive subsidy payments if a child is in attendance. For March and April the state will continue to pay providers based on how many subsidy recipients are enrolled in the program even if the children are absent.

Mary Curry runs her own center and is part of the bargaining team with SEIU 925, the union that represents early childhood educators. She said continued subsidy payments will help centers who accept them, though the state pays less than what is necessary to keep a center running. The state pays $752 for a month of care for an infant, but providers have to charge private pay clients an average of $1,200 per month, said Curry, who is based in Tacoma. Subsidy rates vary by region and by the child’s age.

“We open up our arms because that family is in need, but we’re taking a cut already,” she said.

The union is asking the state to fill in the gaps left by private pay clients who can no longer afford it. That way providers can keep paying their fixed costs, and families will still have a slot when they can return to work.

Congress’s $2.2 trillion stimulus package could offer some relief through grants and no-interest loans that providers can use to pay fixed costs, though they come with some caveats. Higher-education loans could relieve the burdens on some workers who are pursuing additional degrees while working in the field. The House said they will vote on the package Friday.

State lawmakers wrote to Washington’s Congressional delegation earlier this week requesting more support for child care providers. They emphasized the need for programs to remain open for the children of essential workers. “No one financial tool will work for all providers,” the letter reads, “thus it is essential that child care be included in all available recovery programs.”

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Tracy Dawson operates an in-home center near Grays Harbor. Unlike many programs, she expanded her license so she could take in the children of essential workers. She has about 11 kids per day ranging from preschool to fourth grade. She’s charging reduced tuition though her expenses increased to hire more staff and buy more supplies for older children.

“We will end up taking a negative pretty quick, but what do you do?” she said. “I have families that have to get to the hospital and work. But what other choice do they have? The kids would be heading to their elderly grandparents, which is the exact opposite of what we want.”

Her proposed solution is mortgage payment deferments or forgiveness for a few months. “If they could take that burden off my shoulders — even just push it out two months — that could be critical in keeping doors open or closed.”

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