Slammed by the pandemic, N.C. child care operators rebound with a hand from Uncle Sam.
Running at 17% capacity isn’t a viable option for a child care center, but that was the scene early in the coronavirus pandemic at the Kiddie Academy of Charlotte-Blakeney. Only 30 children were showing up in March 2020 at the center licensed for 172. Enrollment rebounded to 135 students within three months, but the recovery was slower than expected with more parents working from home and watching their kids.
“We were normally operating at full capacity with a yearlong waitlist,” says David Willis, owner of the 10-year-old center near the South Carolina line. “We thought we’d be back closer to normal after the beginning of the year, but a lot of families have kept their kids at home.”
The center serves families in affluent parts of Mecklenburg and Union counties, which helped the business recover more quickly than many peers, says Willis, a Republican elected to the N.C. House of Representatives last year.
Enrollment throughout North Carolina’s licensed child care centers declined from more than 265,000 children pre-pandemic to 60,000 in April 2020. It rebounded to 221,590 by this May. About 100 licensed centers have closed, leaving 5,678 as of April 30, according to state records. About 38,000 teachers and staff work in the industry versus 41,000 before the pandemic.
“Day care workers are the essential workforce behind other essential workers,” says Susan Gale Perry, deputy secretary at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. “The pandemic shone a spotlight on child care’s essential role as the bedrock of our economy for parents to work.”
With thin profit margins, the child care industry relies on filling nearly every seat. Vacancies ran as high as 80% last year, then declined to 50% to 60% through much of the crisis, Perry says. Only in the past two months has the rate dipped to 30%.
Because of child care’s vital role, lawmakers are showering the industry with money. The March stimulus package passed by Congress provides $1.3 billion to support child care in North Carolina. About $500 million helps recruit and retain workers and decrease the waiting list of children from lower-income families, The other $800 million helps providers reopen or remain in business, according to N.C. DHHS.
Other stimulus included the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided a $194,000 forgivable loan to Kiddie Academy. Willis says that was critical to his business’ survival. Half of the 35 employees at Kiddie Academy were furloughed during the height of the crisis, but the center remained open. It’s back to 31 employees with plans to hire more.
Statewide, staffing shortages remain common with average pay of $12 an hour. “We are never going to win by competing for the lowest-wage workers,” Perry says.
As work situations change for many families in a post-pandemic economy, Perry foresees more options to provide child care in less-than-full-day increments and to meet the needs of shift workers with fluctuating schedules. “One of the lessons learned is that we can’t separate child care and education,” she says.
The pandemic amplified the need for the industry, “not only as a caretaker but also as an early educator,” says Andrew “Sandy” Weathersbee, who runs Providence Preparatory School in Charlotte with his wife, Betsy. Their 9-year-old school has capacity of 345. The school closed last April and May, but it paid its 75 teachers and staff through the shutdown, aided by a $683,000 PPP loan.
“[The] loan last April helped us maintain and kept us from being in a red ink event,” says Weathersbee, who is a board member of Smart Start, a state-supported initiative that promotes child care. “We were about 90% enrolled in March of 2020, and we are at least at that level of enrollment now.”
He expects federal and state lawmakers will eventually approve two years of public funding for prekindergarten students. The Biden administration is proposing $200 billion for “Universal Pre-K” for children ages 3 and older; Gov. Roy Cooper is an advocate, along with SAS Institute CEO James Goodnight and other N.C. business leaders.
But some child care operators are less enthusiastic. Weathersbee worries that public funding will make it more difficult for private schools to compete for teachers.
“Universal free child care is not an answer; we don’t need to become a nanny state at the state or federal level,” Willis says. He favors boosting child care subsidies in the tax code. “We have to bring everyone to the table — businesses, legislators and parents — and we have to do this sooner rather than later. Parents need to be a large part of the education for their children.”
Weathersbee supports boosting child care salaries “up to par with public school teachers, who are also underpaid. After this past year, companies understand the relevance of early education to the workforce. Whether parents are working remotely or in an office, they can’t be effective if they don’t have good child care.” ■