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Kentucky Child Care Centers Struggle With Cost Of Pandemic’s Regulations

submitted to WFPL news

Pre-pandemic, the iKids Childhood Enrichment Center had up to 75 children in its care. Now, the Marshall County facility is open with just 12 children of essential workers enrolled.

It didn’t take long for Jennifer Washburn, the executive director of iKids, to figure out the arrangement was not sustainable. By April 10 Washburn said her business’ accounts were in the negative.

While the majority of child care centers in Kentucky have been closed by order of the governor, iKids is one of 79 facilities that the Kentucky Office of Inspector General designated a limited duration child care center. Those are the facilities allowed to stay open to care for children of essential workers during the coronavirus crisis.

That means iKids and other limited duration centers are operating under a new, expensive reality, because the status “came with a lot of very appropriate and yet hair pulling regulations and requirements,” Washburn said.

The most costly requirement is the stipulation that no limited duration center staff can be left alone with the children. That requirement alone has doubled staffing costs, Washburn said. 

For preschool aged kids, for example, Washburn was previously following national standards setting the ratio of one teacher per 10 students. Now, as a limited duration child care center, Kentucky requires two teachers per 10 students.

When the requirement was first drawn up back in March, Washburn says, the state didn’t know who would operate these centers, so requiring additional safety precautions made sense. As it turns out, most are run by existing child care centers. That means the majority, like Washburn’s staff, are trained professionals who have already passed a background check. At the same time, tuition is down significantly. The dozen children currently enrolled at iKids is a far cry from the facilities usual numbers.

Washburn already laid off 14 staff members. She is paying time and a half to the remaining staff, to compensate for the health risk associated with working right now.

Hard Decisions

Her facility was approved for a $58,900 loan under the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s the maximum amount available for a small business the size of iKids, but Washburn doesn’t think that money will sustain the business until July. She’s calculating a loss of about $20,000 a month right now.

“This is not a profit making endeavor, it’s a community service. But when that money runs out, I have nothing left. I have to make some hard choices,” Washburn said. 

She’s worried for her business and for her community, especially the essential workers who trust her to look after their children. “How are they going to be able to go to work?” Washburn said. “How are they going to be able to take care of the community that is sick and know that their child is okay?”

The 79 current limited duration centers are spread throughout the state and must be tied to a specific health care facility. Washburn’s iKids center is connected to the Marshall County Hospital. But 20 of the centers are in Louisville and Lexington, leaving essential workers without good options in many of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

Steve Magre, the executive director of the Child Care Advocates of Kentucky, says he is “amazed” that many of the limited duration centers have been able to stay open.

Magre said his organization has been in contact with the state over the guidelines for limited duration centers, but so far, the state hasn’t lowered the required staffing ratios.

“I think it’s important that these centers are high quality, and they are safe, and they are following the regulations,” Magre said. “But to not allow some kind of commonsensical approach to it that would allow these centers to get through the duration, it seems like it should be a high priority to correct this ratio problem.”

State Offers Support

Quality child care was already on the ropes in Kentucky. About half of the state was living in what experts call a child care desert, or an area without adequate access to child care. An analysis by the liberal advocacy group theCenter for American Progress predicts Kentucky could lose up to 42 percent of its child care supply — over 56,000 child care slots — without significant federal support by the time the coronavirus crisis wanes. 

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees the limited duration child care centers, has not responded to a request for comment.

Cabinet secretary Eric Friedlander recently laid out the steps Kentucky is taking to maintain child care capacity through the coronavirus during one of Gov. Andy Beshear’s daily briefings.

“Child care is a critical component to this state, and we’ve struggled for a long time with having the best child care, enough child care,” Friedlander said.

Friedlander said Kentucky will continue payments through the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which helps low-income families afford child care, for every child enrolled in a child care program, regardless of whether the child is actually attending the program. This will keep money going into child care centers, the majority of which are small businesses, to help wait out the coronavirus closures. 

Friedlander said about 17 percent of the state’s existing child care capacity is paid for by Child Care Assistance Program.

Congress approved $3.5 billion in aid for child care programs nationwide on March 27 as part of the CARES Act. Kentucky is using its portion of those funds to help sustain child care programs and to provide some money for limited duration centers. Kentucky is offering workers in limited duration centers what Friedlander called a “hero bonus” amounting to a one-time extra payment of $1,500 per person.

June Widman, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Child Care Coalition, said she spoke with several child care providers who struggled with the idea of staying open as a limited duration center due to the financial stress —  and potential for exposure to the virus. 

“A lot of anguish went into that,” Widman said. “Child care is already such a difficult business to make it work.” 

Industry Already Struggling

Widman said only one child care provider her organization works with became a limited duration center, after the local county judge asked the provider to step up. She has heard from other limited duration child care centers struggling to meet the additional requirements from the state. “The rules were made under a different lens,” Widman said —  before officials knew if existing child care providers would be able to fulfill the need for short term care during the coronavirus. 

With the child care industry struggling in Kentucky, the providers that were able to stay open were those that figured out how to keep costs, including staffing costs, as low as possible. “All those issues were already churning, when you add this on top of it it certainly makes things more difficult.”

Widman said the continuation of state Child Care Assistance Program funding might have a side effect of protecting families who rely on the funding most, such as eastern Kentucky. Since Kentucky will continue to distribute the funding throughout the coronavirus crisis, even to facilities that have closed, she says child care providers in eastern Kentucky may be more stable than those who rely solely on parents who may not be paying tuition at this time.

“All along, programs struggling but working with families and supporting folks that are most vulnerable, they might be the ones that make it through this and come out on the other side able to reopen,” Widman said.

Patti Craig is the Vice President of Programs at Learning Grove, a child care provider active in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. There are 12 children currently enrolled in Learning Grove’s Northern Kentucky location. Craig said some parents are struggling to afford the cost of child care.

Craig said maintaining social distancing and wearing masks is nearly impossible when caring for children, especially as many are struggling to make sense of the world around them and may need extra emotional support.

“Some families and children are kind of going through trauma because of the pandemic and because of the effects of the pandemic,” Craig said.

Learning Grove is following the state’s guidelines on things like sanitizing toys and screening staff and children for illness, but the smaller class sizes and extra staffing costs add up.

“The state has done a good job of making sure children are as safe and healthy as possible in this limited duration care and as we re-open some of those same protocols will have to remain in place,” Craig said. “But financially and logistically it’s very challenging for us to operate long term in this kind of structure.”

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