Childcare plays a very important role in society today. Not only does it provide children with necessary nurturance, supervision, socialization and intellectual stimulation, but it also allows parents to work, enables employers to fill jobs, and helps the state’s tax base grow.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the importance of childcare for working parents, as they rely on childcare to help them enter, re-enter, or remain in the workforce. At the same time, the pandemic has put the industry in peril, with added safety measures and capacity limits taking a toll on an industry that already runs on razor thin margins.
According to research from the Infant and Toddler Policy Research Center at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, state restrictions and safety measures have increased childcare provider costs by up to $69 a week per toddler, and $37 a week per preschooler.
“Many childcare providers were already struggling to turn a profit before the pandemic, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if some are now forced to raise rates, turn children away, or close their doors,” says Karin Garver, early childhood education policy specialist for NIEER.
Racheal Fosu, Social Enterprise & GiveCareTech founder and CEO, says that industry revenues are down 50-60% and will not realistically begin to come back until September, adding that the childcare industry could see its closures increase by 20% over the course of the year. “Imagine the impact to the workforce with 60% of childcare centers being unavailable,” she says.
Despite the significant challenges ahead, the childcare services that are now open continue to provide this essential service to children and families, while providing a safe and stable environment in these uncertain COVID-19 times.
“Too often, people share the mistaken belief that childcare providers are babysitters,” says Elizabeth Sanchez, owner, founder and director of Perth Amboy-based Baby Bee Nursery & Early LearningCenter and I Excel Child Care. “A lot goes into ensuring children have a safe place to stay while their parents work.”
Having a “safe” place to stay has taken on a new meaning during the pandemic, as childcare centers are forced to adhere to state health policies as well as create their own, which can be a challenge when dealing with young children.
“We established a series of protocols to reduce traffic within our center and revamped our sanitation process,” Sanchez says. “Parents are only admitted to the foyer area of our center and must wear a mask. Only one family is allowed in the entry area at any given time. Upon entering the center, parents must fill out a questionnaire, have their child’s temperature taken, wash their child’s hands and remove their child’s shoes.”
At the same time, it is important to maintain some level of normalcy, and Sanchez says that her centers do not consolidate staff or children. “We keep the same children and staff together in small groups in the same rooms at all times. We sanitize shared spaces each time they are used and ensure the rooms and surfaces are cleansed frequently throughout the day,” she adds.
Jeanette Rios, owner and manager of two All Star Academy childcare facilities, says that before COVID-19, her centers, which care for children from kindergarten through eighth grade, offered tutoring services and ensured that the children were completing their school assignments.
“That hasn’t changed. It’s just now we’ve kind of hit another level where we are also teachers per se, and we’re helping the teachers who are using computers to teach the kids in our childcare centers,” Rios says. “We also have a responsibility to make sure the children know what homework needs to be done, and how the students will turn it in.”
The childcare industry itself plays a major role in New Jersey’s economy. According to the non-profit ChildCare Aware of New Jersey, the industry generates more than $4.1 billion annually and creates approximately 67,098 full-time jobs each year.
With the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic, childcare centers that are forced to shutter would not only affect the livelihoods of the small business owners and employees who work at the centers, but it would have a devastating effect on the economy, and force parents to make tough, career-altering decisions when weighing how to look after their children.
The New Jersey Department of Human Services recently invested $12.6 million into the New Jersey Child Care Subsidy Program, which aims to help families with lower-to-moderate incomes afford childcare, and also extended several COVID-19-related childcare assistance programs through the end of February.
While the state has provided much needed assistance in the form of PPE, grants to cover additional staff and maintenance, as well as covering 100% of the cost of childcare for essential workers, difficulties still exist.
Sanchez says that the burden of hiring more staff and paying more for maintenance while caring for fewer children has made it difficult to remain operational, and continues to be a major challenge for childcare centers across the state.
She adds that it has also been challenging to get support from the agencies that act as a liaison between the state and her center, stating that it is difficult for families to contact [the agencies], and that there are often discrepancies with payments.
Both Sanchez and Rios feel that the pandemic has shined a light on the necessity for high quality, professional childcare services, as it has shown that business cannot continue as usual if parents do not have childcare available.
“What worked five years ago, does not today,” Sanchez says. “We, as providers, have to be able to adapt to change, but our adaptations are often limited due to financial restraints. Hopefully, our industry will get more financial support so we can continue to grow our centers to meet our families’ ever-changing needs.
“Childcare is an essential service, and without it, many other industries, companies, schools and government departments would struggle to continue operating,” Sanchez says.
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