The coronavirus pandemic exposed just how fragile child care really is in the United States. Most operate with little financial cushion.
“There’s very little wiggle room, and really this has magnified how little wiggle room we have,” said Reed Donahue, owner of Little Red Wagon PlaySchool in Newton, a center for kids 2.9-5 years old.
"My business was doing fine," Donahue said of the for-profit preschool. "If you told me March 1, this is what I was going to be dealing with — I'm not a business person, but I've become really knowing where all my dollars are going, what's coming in and applying for loans and all that kind of stuff. So many different hats."
Literally. When Donahue spoke with WBUR, she had a big umbrella folded up behind her, one of many props from a recent virtual beach day. She and her staff put on three hours of zoom sessions each weekday for the kids and create activity packs for parents to pick up each Sunday.
"I've worn more costumes and things than I've ever done," she said. "It's been fun and exciting. [And] it's been time-consuming."
Little Red Wagon closed along with Newton Public Schools on March 13. At the time, all schools and day cares were planning to reopen after a few weeks. But that was extended. Like all non-emergency day cares, kids won't be coming through their doors until at least the end of June, and state leaders have said they are working to develop a "phased approach."
"Parents cannot go back to work if their children are not safely cared for," early education and care commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said last month. "Educators cannot go back to work if proper preparations and protocols aren't in place. ... And businesses cannot reopen if their employees don't have safe, high-quality child care to send their children to."
Because of the closure, Donahue furloughed all 10 teachers at the school. She was able to rehire them through the end of June after receiving $63,000 through the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — the one that ran out of funding in 13 days.
"I really assumed once I got the PPP money, we were all set," Donahue said. "'Yay, I get to hire the staff back.' But then [I] realized that's not going to pay for all the other expenses we have."
Like rent, which is $5,200 a month. PPP can't go toward that.
And Donahue was one of the lucky providers who received funding in the first round. During a recent call with the Newton Early Childhood Association, Donahue said she was one of four providers who received the funding — out of 20 directors on the call.
According to Brian Swartz with NeighborSchools, a company that connects families with home day cares, none of the home-based day care providers he worked with were able to get those funds. Federal officials and the Massachusetts Bankers Association said they didn't have data about early education businesses who received the funds.
At Little Red Wagon, some of the 48 families are still paying tuition, while others cannot. One big question for Donahue is what requirements the state could put in place for reopening, such as limiting the number of kids allowed in day care at one time.
"We're totally tuition-based," Reed explained, like most day cares, with the bulk of that going to payroll. "If my numbers have to go down, but yet my staffing has to go up, that model won't work for us. And I know it won't work for a lot of schools, either."
That's why some Newton parents started a GoFundMe for Little Red Wagon.
"If she can't open come July, what if she can't open come fall?" wondered Angela Spence, who started the campaign. "Will I be able to even continue working?"
According to a new survey by the advocacy group Strategies for Children, 46% of parents said they would not be able to return to work without consistent child care.
"Affordable and quality child care services are a foundational element of a successful society," said her husband, Tyler Spence. "The disruption in the short-term for these types of facilities are going to have a broader ripple effects across our ability to bounce back from this pandemic."
The Spences said they know they are fortunate to be able to decide whether to become a single-income family with three kids, ages 2, 4 and 10. Angela works in human resources on diversity and inclusion, and doesn't want to give that up.
"I really struggle with that," she said. "I work in a very meaningful field that I think is having a huge impact on corporate America right now. And to walk away from that because of my child care options, as the mother, isn't fair."
It's another sign of the ripple effects day care closures have, even for families with stable employment, who can work from home and have resources.
"It's just this whole like piecemeal nightmare," Angela Spence said. The family recently moved to North Carolina so that her mother could watch the three kids when she starts her new job remotely next week. "We're making drastic changes because we don't have anywhere safe to send our kids."
Donahue is weighing drastic changes as well. Typically, she runs a small summer program in July: three days a week for 20 kids. Now she's considering whether to do the full school year program in July and August, if the state would allow that and if parents would enroll their kids.
"I definitely think about the possibility of having to close," Donahue said. "That's the last thing I want to do."
But it will depend on what the state decides. Gov. Charlie Baker is developing a phased plan to ease some restrictions on businesses, including day cares. Donahue is hoping to get more guidance about what that could look like soon.
This segment aired on May 11, 2020.