How many child care providers will reopen when the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course and parents return to work?

Florida’s child care industry, consisting mostly of small businesses, was struggling financially long before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation.


In late March, 16% of providers in Florida had closed down, according to the Florida Department of Education.


As of Wednesday, 57% of child care providers were closed, according to the department, many due to low enrollment and therefore low revenue.


“The profession has reached a breaking point,” said Julia Musella, a Pompano Beach Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) provider and spokeswoman for “I Am Ready,” an early learning advocacy group. “There will be a tremendous shortage on the other side when we come back.”


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When the pandemic has run its course and parents return to work en masse, will there be enough child care providers?


In Sarasota County, about 70% of child care providers were closed as of Thursday, according to Janet Kahn, Executive Director of Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County. Sarasota County lost between 50-75 providers the day after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order, Kahn said.


“Many providers will reopen but we will lose some,” Kahn said. “We are going to go through a period where we’ll have less capacity than our community needs.”


Trouble in the middle


Tiffany Romero, the owner of two child care facilities in Broward County, closed down one of her facilities last Friday, when enrollment was down to only two children, but plans to reopen in two weeks.


She is confident that her facilities will still be running when parents go back to work after the pandemic runs its course, but she knows many others won’t.


“The subsidized care is saving us. Without that, I don’t see how I would do this,” Romero said. “I think there’s going to be many child care facilities that won’t be able to reopen unless they get help from the federal government with rent or mortgage. Otherwise, I don’t see how it’s possible.”


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Funds for VPK, a state entitlement program available to all children, and School Readiness, which helps pay day care expenses for low-income families, will be reimbursed to providers regardless of attendance or school closure. But many providers additionally rely on private pay from mid- or high-income families, and some don’t receive any government subsidies.


The child care providers who serve middle-class communities could be the most severely affected.


“Sites that serve more higher income families will be able to work things out, and sites that primarily serve families who receive subsidies will still be getting paid,” Khan said. “So the ones that are more in the middle, they are definitely getting hit.”


Essential workers


To help some parents who are essential workers, Florida’s Office of Early Learning (OEL) released a new program to support first responders and health care workers with child care. The program will cover the cost of care on a temporary basis for up to three months, and will be available to critical first responders, regardless of income.


In Sarasota, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Sarasota Memorial Health Care System (SMH) spearheaded an initiative to open child care spaces for children of health care workers and first responders.


A survey of SMH employees reported more than 1,400 children needed somewhere to go while schools and private child care facilities are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


“Without child care, we don’t have health care workers,” said Carol Ann Kalish, Chief Legal Officer of SMH in a prepared statement. “We’re trying to get ahead of the issue before essential employees are having to call out of work to prioritize the safety of their children.”


Essential health care and public safety employees in Sarasota County can enroll their children for free at The Florida Center Starfish Academy, Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, SKY Family YMCA and sites contracted with the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, as space is available.


This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.