LITTLETON - Child care centers need more help to stay afloat.
That was the message sent to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen during an hour-long roundtable at the Littleton Head Start on Thursday.
Regional child care leaders said the economic impacts of COVID-19 could force some centers to shut down permanently unless the federal government delivers additional aid.
"[M]any child care providers throughout New Hampshire are at serious risk of closing their doors unless they get help now," Shaheen said. "Child care is critical to our response to this pandemic and a lack thereof will seriously hurt working families and the economy. Funding to support child care providers must be a priority in any upcoming COVID-19 relief package and I will do everything in my power in the Senate to secure it."
New Hampshire closed most child care facilities in mid-March, except those chosen to care for children of essential workers.
In May, Gov. Chris Sununu announced they could re-open with enhanced health and safety practices, and a reduced capacity of 10 people (staff and children) per room.
Those requirements have put a financial squeeze on child care centers.
COVID safeguards aren't cheap.
Karen Thomas, assistant director of the Tri-Country CAP Head Start program, said cleaning supplies have become more expensive and harder to find, and personal protective equipment (PPE) costs were an added burden. She estimated the weekly PPE bill for Head Start's nine North Country locations including Colebrook, Groveton, Littleton, Whitefield and Woodsville was approximately $500.
Without more government assistance to cover PPE and cleaning supply costs, Thomas said, "We would have to close because we need them. We can't operate without the masks or the cleaning supplies, we have to have them."
Meanwhile income is down.
Amy Brooks, executive director of the Early Care and Education Association in Lebanon, said the 10-person per room capacity limit has slashed revenue without addressing costs.
A recent feasibility study of child care centers in the North Country and Upper Valley found that many were running at half-capacity, yet were required to maintain nearly all of their payroll.
"A lot of centers are feeling the bite," said Brooks.
Ann Auger, coordinator for the Coos County Director's Network, added, "They’re trying to follow the group size restrictions as best they can but the financial impact of that is pretty severe. They’re definitely way below capacity."
Another matter is workforce.
Some child care centers that remain closed have lost staff to other jobs. Others have re-opened and been short-staffed, as employees stay home for COVID-related health concerns and family responsibilities.
In both cases, there is a region-wide lack of trained, qualified substitutes.
"We don’t have people to replace those who are out. What happens if people get sick and there’s no one to replace them?" Auger said. "It’s a really uncertain time."
To face these challenges, some child care centers are banding together and forming partnerships, in order to facilitate resource sharing, group purchasing, and hiring and training.
Communities continue to face a daycare shortage five months after the pandemic started.
The Upper Valley had 218 centers serving 10,000 children age 5 and under before COVID. As of last month, only 50 centers had re-opened with a capacity for 1,000 kids.
In Coos County, 10 of 13 child care centers closed during the pandemic, including all in Berlin. Today seven are back on line. The remainder are expected to re-open by Sept. 8.
Child care shortages impact the workforce. The economy cannot recover without safe, reliable child care to allow working parents to return to their jobs.
"Both of my kids are home, I have a two year old and a three year old, and I work from home anyway but I’m only able to work two days a week because that’s all I can find help for," said Auger, an early childhood consultant. "It’s severely impacted my ability to work."
It also affects kids’ mental and physical health.
That’s particularly true during the pandemic when at-risk children face greater stress, anxiety, and food insecurity at home. It adds to existing problems that pre-date COVID.
It echoed what Shaheen recently heard from a Boys & Girls Club director in the southern part of the state: "He was concerned about the kids who were coming back. He said there were kids he used to see the whole summer. He was worried about what happened to them and what their mental health was going to be like when they come back, and the kind of help he needs to provide for the kids."
The mental health of child care staff will also be impacted.
"When you’re bringing in children who are trauma informed the work is very hard and it does contribute to teacher turnover and lack of workforce when you’re trying to provide for children who are trauma informed and who have been personally affected by the opioid crisis, it is very demanding work," said Crystal Reed of Tri-Country CAP. "If you talk to anybody who has been in the field for any period of time they will tell you classrooms are very different and the issues that children are bringing in at young ages are really different."
Those issues lend urgency to ongoing negotiations in Washington, where the Senate is working on a second COVID relief bill.
Democratic lawmakers, including Shaheen, have introduced the Child Care Is Essential Act which would create at $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund which would assist child care centers as they re-open and operate during the pandemic.
A competing Republican proposal would give child-care providers $15 billion in emergency aid.
Senate Democrats and Republicans both advocate more funding than the House-approved HEROES Act, would provide $7 billion to the child care industry.