As NC reopens, child care facilities struggle to bounce back from pandemic closures

By: - July 1, 2020 12:00 pm

Image: Adobe Stock

While the North Carolina General Assembly tries again and again to reopen gyms and bars, there is another type of business that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and is struggling to rebound: child care centers.

Thirty-three percent of all child care facilities remain closed, according to a presentation NC Early Education Coalition policy director Michele Rivest gave to the House Health Committee on June 24.

There are two main types of child care facilities: child care centers, which are larger, and smaller family child care homes. Of the two, large child care centers are the hardest-hit: 41 percent of these centers remain closed, whereas family child care homes are rebounding much more quickly. Only 7 percent of those centers remain closed.

“Child care centers serve so many more children, they have much bigger capacity,” said Rivest. “So you have far less capacity in family child care homes, but you have more open programs.”

As part of the CARES Act, Congress sent North Carolina $118 million to support child care centers, but providers say they need much more support.

In a survey of 322 North Carolina child care providers conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in late March, 32 percent said that without “significant public investment and support,” they would not survive closing for more than two weeks. 12 percent said they would not survive closing for any length of time without these supports.

It’s been over three months since that survey and the initial CARES Act payment, and now, in July, the pandemic has perpetuated the shutdown of a significant proportion of child care facilities.

An April report by the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center* shows the extent of the current child care crisis. In only one county out of North Carolina’s 100 did less than 10 percent of child care facilities close due to the pandemic—Person County, where 8 percent of child care facilities have closed. In Cherokee County, the closure rate is 100 percent.

“North Carolina is what is known as a ‘child care desert,’” wrote Rivest in an op-ed for EducationNC in April.

This means that the demand for child care in NC exceeds supply. This was true even before the pandemic, which could put some of these centers out of business permanently.

A bill to address this issue, HB 1117, was introduced on May 14 by Representatives Julie von Haefen (D-Wake), Mary Belk (D-Mecklenburg), Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe), and Rachel Hunt (D-Mecklenburg). On May 18, it was referred to the House Committee on Appropriations. It has not moved since then.

The bill would appropriate $121,396,240 to protect child care workers during the pandemic. These funds would be allocated as follows:

  • Up to $100,000,000 for bonuses for teachers and other staff providing child care during the pandemic
  • $15,146,240 for health and sanitation supplies, cleaning services, and personal protective equipment for child care programs
  • $500,000 for COVID-19 testing for children and providers in child care facilities
  • $5,750,000 for 52 additional health consultants to provide early educators at child care facilities with training on disease spread prevention and management and to serve children with special needs

The current draft of the bill states that any funds left unspent by June 30 (yesterday) would roll over into the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

Child care is an essential service. Parents without access to affordable child care are frequently driven out of the workforce. A 2017 study by the Center for American Progress found that nearly 63,000 North Carolina parents quit, did not take, or were forced to greatly change their jobs because of issues accessing child care.

The child care crisis also affects workplace gender equality, since the burden of unpaid caregiving disproportionately falls on mothers. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, far more women than men reported experiencing career interruptions because of child care responsibilities at home.

When the pandemic first caused businesses to begin shutting down, child care centers were among the first to close. The gender disparity in caregiving was immediately visible, with mothers having to make huge career adjustments while taking care of their children.

As with other industries, the COVID-19 pandemic did not create the structural flaws within the child care system; it merely exposed what child care advocates have been saying for years.

“The pandemic has laid bare the fundamental flaws in the way child care is financed and funded,” said Rivest last week.

“The bottom line,” she wrote in her April op-ed, “is that if child care programs don’t receive the financial support they need to reopen, it will make it incredibly hard for North Carolina’s families to go back to work when this crisis is over.”

*The NC Budget and Tax Center is a project of the NC Justice Center, the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

Aditi Kharod is a student at UNC Chapel Hill and an intern at NC Policy Watch.

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