Wanda Franklin’s child care center has lost $30,000 in tuition payments since the Hill District location closed in March.
She plans to reopen the center, Hug Me Tight, on June 15 with fewer children and stricter cleaning protocols. She expects to receive $6,500 from the federal CARES Act to compensate for losses. But she’ll also have to buy cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and potentially hire more staff to help reduce the student-to-teacher ratio.
On top of that, parents are hesitant to send kids back to group settings, so she might continue to lose revenue.
“It has been devastating, to put it very mildly,” Franklin said. “We were barely making it before.”
Franklin’s financial challenges were one example relayed to state senators and representatives Wednesday during a joint policy committee hearing. Cara Ciminillo, the executive director of Pittsburgh-based early learning advocacy group Trying Together, said the program is just one of thousands experiencing significant revenue loses.
“These financial losses paired with what is likely to be slow demand and uncertainty with respect the pandemic continues could collapse the entire sector," Ciminillo said.
Hug Me Tight is a Star 4 center, the highest quality rating in the state’s system, and serves mostly low income families. The state has continued to make subsidy payments since child care was deemed non-life-sustaining in March. Franklin says without those payments she would have closed the center. She has continued to pay her 15 staff members a reduced wage through the shutdown.
“The state needs to do more especially for Star 4 centers. Do they not see child care as a necessity? Is it not apparent?” Franklin said.
Franklin’s business is licensed to care for 91 children. Before the closure she had 38. She said in theory, she could have provided care for more kids this summer with camps canceled and schools closed, but now she can’t afford the costs. Even before the pandemic, child care providers were operating on thin margins and staff are paid low wages.
“We are fortunate to be a Star 4. A lot of these centers aren’t, and they work in the most disadvantaged communities. They are not able to hire individuals that have a degree because they don’t have the means to provide them with a wage that will help a mother, single mom, go to school,” Franklin said. “How can you entice this person to try to go to school and get paid $8 an hour? It’s not worth it.”
Ciminillo, along with Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, estimate that $142 million more in state and federal funds is needed to stabilize the state’s child care sector.
“We know resources are in short supply,” Ciminillo said. “But our state’s recovery is linked to the availability of child care and these funds are needed to preserve and ready Pennsylvania’s child care system, allowing families to rapidly return to work."
The commonwealth received $106 million for child care from the federal CARES Act. Gov. Tom Wolf announced March 20 that $51 million of that would soon be issued to providers in the yellow phase - $11.1 million to Philadelphia County and $4.2 million to Allegheny County. Ciminillo said that money is expected to be issued by the end of June.
The remaining $55 million will be allocated once a Department of Human Services study assessing the economic impact of the pandemic on providers is completed.
Advocates say they can’t wait on that money. One of the six requests they presented to the committees includes immediately releasing the remaining CARES funding.
They want the state to continue to pay child care subsidies regardless of whether children attend programs; compensate centers for lost tuition payments from parents; provide training for sanitization practices and cover costs of cleaning supplies; and provide immunity from lawsuits if programs follow CDC guidance.
State Sens. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) and Judith Schwank (D-Berks) are co-sponsoring legislation that would provide $100 million for child care centers, $117 million for Head Start and $50 million for Pre-K and Head Start summer programs.