LAKE COUNTY, Ohio — The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the child care industry, and policy advocates are calling for state and federal relief to help centers make it through and give parents a place for their children to go as they head back to work.
Nicky Foster is the owner and director of Wickliffe Academy, a child care center in Lake County. Before the pandemic, her center served nearly 150 kids a week, but now, it's at half that capacity. With ratios of teachers to children in place to minimize contact among people at child care centers, she said the center cannot take in any more.
"It’s challenging because I get calls every day for parents who need to go back to work," Foster said. "Maybe they’ve been out of work since the pandemic, and now they’ve got the opportunity to go back, and I can’t help them cause I’m full."
She said many of the parents she's had to turn away cannot find care elsewhere, either.
"This is really an issue, it really is hard," Foster said.
Wickliffe Academy has been able to remain open with reduced capacity throughout the pandemic while focusing on keeping the center clean and keeping kids and staff healthy, but other child care centers have been forced to close, according to Foster.
"So many of my colleagues are just not opening, or closing altogether," Foster said. "And that’s pretty sad, because now not only do we have diminished capacity because of the ratios and whatnot, we have people who are just going out of business, and that’s counter to what we’re trying to do to get the economy going in the right direction."
She said at the center's current capacity, "it's hard to keep teachers, it's hard to do anything extra. I mean, we're really down to skeleton staffing and also skeleton activities, trying to do our best but this is hard."
She added, "Our financial resources have been affected negatively to a great extent. We have teachers who have graduated from college in the meantime, and we’re trying to give them raises to make it more competitive, and really they deserve it. And it’s hard to do when you’re not able to fully enroll your children into the classrooms."
Foster said there are also capital expenditures she would like to make, that her center typically makes each year for the buildings and programs, and that's not possible at the capacity level the center currently holds.
"We really do need the ratios to be increased. We need the excess capacity because people are going back to work," Foster said. "That’s a great thing. We want everybody to go back to work. But they also have to have the workforce behind the workforce involved."
She said that if lawmakers or elected officials cannot help child care centers with increasing capacity, "then we’re gonna need some help otherwise to stay afloat."
"If there’s no relief, I don’t think that the industry’s gonna make it," Foster said. "And if that happens, who’s gonna take care of the kids? How are people gonna get back to work?"
As children prepare to head back to school in the fall, Foster also expressed concern with the number of child care centers who are no longer serving school-aged children. In part, she said, that's because children of that age aren't reimbursed at rates as high as younger children since they only need child care part-time during the school year.
"A lot of centers are not doing school-agers at all," Foster said. "They’re selling buses, they’re making capacity for younger children, but you know, these kids are getting ready to go back to school and if they have no place to go after school or before school, for working parents, this is really an issue."
Policy Matters Ohio released a report Thursday that describes the magnitude of the problem in the child care industry.
"If you think of I-71 and there were two or three lanes that were down, we're basically right there with child care right now," said Will Petrik, a budget researcher at Policy Matters Ohio.
Petrik, who authored the report, said that Ohio could lose more than 200,000 child care slots if lawmakers don't take action at the state and federal levels. He said more than 300,000 child care workers were laid off in April nationwide.
"The child care industry, even before COVID-19, was teetering, and the pandemic has had a disastrous impact," Petrik said.
Petrik said there are challenges for the child care industry and child care providers, as well as for families, and mothers in particular, who he said are trying to juggle work responsibilities and child-rearing duties.
"Child care is the workforce behind the workforce," Petrik said. "If moms and dads don't have child care, they're not able to participate in the workforce and participate in the economy."
Policy Matters Ohio is calling on both state and federal elected officials to take action, including calling on Ohio's U.S. Senators to support at least $50 billion for child care in the next federal stimulus package.
Petrik emphasized the need for a long-term solution.
"At the end of the day, all parents deserve to go to work knowing that their kids have a safe, nurturing place to go," Petrik said.
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