I made a poster when I was 10 years old advertising the new child care facility I was starting in my neighborhood. My parents gently explained I could not launch my own business at that point, but encouraged me to start babysitting.
I loved my first sitting job watching little Mikie so much that I told his parents they didn’t need to pay me. Of course, they insisted. I have always loved children. They are so full of life and eager to learn. They love to be silly and will give hugs all day long.
There have been many highs and lows in my 35-year child care career, but no previous challenge can compare with being a center owner during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been the toughest test I have faced, one that threatens my center’s long-term survival.
In March, the first rumblings of COVID-19 had my team and me on high alert. Like most business owners around me, I had many questions and no solid answers.
When most things closed, the governor determined child care providers are essential workers, and we were strongly encouraged to keep operating. We started massive sanitizing routines and waited for more information. There were many unknowns.
The first question I had was if we remain open, are we putting the health of children and staff at risk? We needed to have enough soap, bleach, sanitizers and toilet paper to operate but all of those supplies were hard to get. I spent hours online and on the phone procuring them. Friends and family helped with my problematic sanitizer search. We eventually received guidelines from the CDC and other public health officials for safe operations, but in the beginning, those frequently shifted.
In trying to plan and prepare, I spent hours researching information from the county, state, and federal governments. On many occasions I would read reports, evaluate facts, problem solve our logistics, make difficult decisions, and communicate adjustments to staff and parents, only to get dramatic policy changes the next day. We came up with an elaborate staffing plan using our normal child-to-staff ratios, and the next day health mandates changed. We had to quickly change room use and group sizes and adjust staffing.
Many factors will determine our financial survival beyond the pandemic. Most of our families chose to withdraw from the center, some temporarily and a few permanently. Many couldn’t come up with a plan for more than a couple of weeks ahead, so I was operating based on a budget that could be off by tens of thousands of dollars.
Some parents were willing to continue paying tuition while absent, and I’m so grateful. Others either couldn’t afford to pay or chose not to. We made the difficult decision to not enroll new families, even though we could use the income, to try to limit COVID-19 exposure.
I started seeking other possible income sources, like those offered by government relief packages. Most are extremely confusing and went through many versions before allowing small businesses to apply.
The Paycheck Protection Program requires businesses to have the same number of full-time employees and work hours after eight weeks. The program ran out of money almost immediately. And even if we had applied, we likely would not have gotten enough ongoing revenue to continue funding my entire staff.
The other challenge is the equity in paying some staff to work and others while they didn’t because of health risks, understanding I was supportive of each individual’s decision. Even if enrollment went up, we may not have enough staff return or be able to hire replacement staff because of health concerns. Plus, we have no guarantee we will still be in business in two months, and loans need to be repaid.
I also spent time asking our insurance carrier for the $25,000 I should get for loss of income due to communicable disease. After a lot of paperwork, emails and time, I was told I get nothing because the health department did not shut us down.
There were a few grants available, but they were also wiped out quickly. It’s hard to research and apply for them when you are working extremely long days, seven days a week. In addition to doing my daily work, extra sanitizing and filling in for teachers, I fielded many queries from staff who didn’t feel safe working or had other questions.
I also heard from parents asking about our future and tuition issues. We even received an email from a parent furious that we would stay open during a pandemic where people are dying. It felt endless.
We could close the center. But I don’t want our families to lose their jobs due to a lack of child care. We want our parents who are working in essential services to still be able to serve the community. I want our children to have some consistency in their new pandemic world. I want my hardworking, dedicated staff to have employment. And I definitely want the business that I’ve worked at for decades to keep afloat.
For today I’ve determined the best I can do is continue to gather as much information as I can, work hard, communicate well, support staff and enjoy the children.