Cassandra Brooks owns and operates The Little Believer's Academy, with daycare centers in Clayton and Garner. After working a corporate job at IBM, it was her dream to start her own business caring for children.
“If you enjoy working with kids and they love you, when you walk in the room it's like you're a movie star, like ‘Hey, there's Cassandra,’ running, hugging you, loving you,” Brooks said. “You want to show that love back to them.”
Now the months-long coronavirus pandemic is endangering the future of Brooks’ business, which serves largely low-income families. Fewer than half her students were attending daycare this spring and she says that number dropped again the first week of June.
“In my one location, in Garner, I think they have five children today,” Brooks said on a weekday in early June. “You can't operate a business with five children.”
Before the pandemic hit, that center served 40 children. Brooks said she doesn’t know how much longer she can keep her centers open with that drop in income.
“I toy with like, should you go into something different? I don't know,” Brooks said. “Then I'll see my other counterparts, some of my other friends that operate schools, they're like ‘Cassandra, June 15, I'm done.’”
About a third of all childcare centers in the state have remained closed since March. That figure is based on the number of applications childcare providers submitted to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services seeking to reopen from March through early June.
Most of the childcare centers that have stayed open or reopened since March took a significant hit in enrollment, and some could be forced to shut their doors soon.
Advocates Predict A Third of Childcare Centers May Close Permanently
“The current situation and the outlook for childcare in North Carolina as it is across the country is very bleak,” said Michele Rivest, the executive director of the North Carolina Early Education Coalition.
About a quarter of children in North Carolina live in what's considered a childcare desert, named for the lack of daycare slots for families who need them.
“Even before the pandemic, the state of childcare was always a fragile system,” Rivest said. “Most childcare programs operate on a shoestring, [with] very low profit margins.”
Right now the numbers don’t look good for childcare centers.
“Probably a third of them will go out of business permanently,” Rivest said. “They're going to face financial ruin, that is how bleak it is.”
Childcare advocates are wringing their hands over that prediction — that as many as millions of childcare slots across the United States could disappear in the next year.
Diminishing enrollment is one part of the picture. Childcare centers are largely funded by tuition and are therefore highly dependent on enrollment to survive.
Data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child Development and Early Education show enrollment has dropped at childcare centers across the state.
The numbers may not be perfectly reported, state officials caution. However, the general trend in attendance is plain to see.
The prediction that as many as a third of childcare centers could close is based, in part, on a national survey of childcare providers conducted in March by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Of the 322 childcare providers in North Carolina that responded to the survey, 32% said they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without significant public aid.
The North Carolina General Assembly and Governor Roy Cooper came through with emergency aid for the childcare industry in March through May. That included federal CARES Act funding directed to hazard pay for childcare workers, childcare subsidies for essential workers, suspending co-payments for existing state funded subsidies, and one-time operating grants for childcare centers.
But those stabilizing measures were short term – and they are running out.
Democrats in the legislature filed a bill to funnel more federal aid to the childcare industry – largely to provide for teacher bonuses and cleaning supplies – but Republicans that hold a majority in both chambers have not moved the bill forward.
“So basically all of these things are coming to an end in June,” Rivest said.
Lack Of Childcare Is Keeping This Nurse From Going Back To Work
Latoya Buchanan is a nurse who was using one of those subsidies to send her three kids to Little Believer's Academy. The grant helped her finish her residency to become a nurse practitioner.
Right around the time she graduated, the grant expired. Now, she can’t afford daycare.
“I am at home with my children all day every day,” Buchanan said. “I need a safe place for my children to go, so I can go and work and be a helping hand right now.”
Buchanan is a single mom and her parents have normally been a backup childcare option, but they live an hour away. What’s more, she’s worried about exposing her parents to COVID-19 while she works with patients.
That puts Buchanan in a Catch-22. She needs a good-paying job to pay for childcare, but first she needs childcare to be able to take a job.
“Well honestly, I had an offer already before graduation,” Buchanan said. “I can't do anything with it, because I don't have childcare.”
To accept the job offer, she would need help paying for daycare to get her by for a month or two, then her new salary would cover her childcare costs – about $1,500 a month. Buchanan hopes that the employer can hold the job offer for her until she figures out how to bridge the gap.
“You kind of look at your finances and say, ‘Okay, do we eat? Or do they go to childcare?’” Buchanan said. “Because of how tight money is right now for the family.”
As other parents transition back into the workforce over the next year or two, they may find themselves in similar situations. Either they may not be able to afford childcare, or if enough daycare centers close, they may struggle to find one.
“My biggest fear is that we don't pull out past this,” Brooks said. “That the childcare industry doesn’t turn around.”
If predictions become reality, and a third of childcare centers in North Carolina close long term, tens of thousands of children maybe affected.
“I'm afraid that we're gonna look down the road 10 years from now and just gonna say, 'My God, what happened?'” Brooks said.
If she does have to close her two daycare centers, Brooks says she’d like to become a childcare advocate, to lobby for the industry to be funded more like public education.