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So far, COVID has wounded state’s child care system. Fall, winter might kill it.

So far, COVID has wounded state’s child care system. Fall, winter might kill it.

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Steph Allen has already weathered one unimaginable crisis, the nightmare scenario that struck Grand Island and her new Teaching Tree childcare center this spring.

She had to close The Teaching Tree for eight weeks as the COVID pandemic hit Hall County earlier and harder than almost any other spot in Nebraska. When she reopened in June, her enrollment and revenue plunged by 40 percent. It’s only now that enrollment is back up and daily operations are starting to feel somewhat normal.

The good news is that both Steph and her high-quality child care center are still standing.

The bad news is that she can already see another crisis looming on the horizon.

“My biggest fear is when school starts back up in Grand Island,” she says. “How are parents going to react if schools have to close? Will my staff want to close here? And if it gets to the point that I have to close again, I will absolutely be in trouble financially unless there’s another round of (COVID relief) funding.

“So, what scares me the most? The months of August through December.”

Nebraska’s child care system is economically staggering four months into COVID-19, according to the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s new statewide survey of 1,000 licensed child care providers. The next four months could bring further financial blows that many child care providers won’t survive.

Most child care providers responding to the survey lost at least a quarter of their income this spring and summer. Child care centers are faring even worse — nearly 4 of 10 report that income has been sliced in half this year.

This situation would have looked even more dire if not for COVID aid. More than a third of Nebraska child care providers surveyed have received federal Personal Protection Program loans. Two-thirds received smaller, $1,000 private grants. Every provider interviewed for this story portrayed those funds as a lifesaver as they struggled to stay afloat.

But too many child care providers are sinking—and many more could sink soon.

Roughly 1 of every 7 Nebraska child care providers was closed for business in June, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Many will never reopen, further straining an already strained system — many providers already operated on shoestring budgets, and many Nebraska families already struggled to find affordable, quality care for their children, long before COVID-19.

The looming crisis: Many more Nebraska child care businesses appear to be barely above water. More than half the providers surveyed said they will “definitely” or “probably” need financial assistance if the pandemic continues into fall and winter.

Put another way: Half of providers surveyed say they will likely close their doors without financial help.

“Calling this an economic crisis is accurate,” says Dr. Kathleen Gallagher, the Buffett Institute’s director of research and evaluation. “We heard again and again from providers, that if this continues, they don’t think they will make it.”

The past four months have also taken a worrisome toll on the physical and emotional health of Nebraska’s providers as they care for our children.

More than three-quarters of providers surveyed report stress-related sleep changes during COVID. More than half say they are having trouble concentrating. Roughly half report that they are sad or depressed some or most of the time.

Yet providers are still resiliently showing up for work, say Gallagher and Dr. Alexandra Daro, a Buffett Institute research specialist and survey co-author. Many providers report using self-care practices like deep breathing and walks outside to be able to cope and get ready for the next workday.

“This is so Nebraskan,” Gallagher said. “These people are in pain, and they are still doing their jobs.”

Said Daro: “But they are also flat-out saying, ‘I am worn out. I am tired. This is taking its toll.’”

Rita Kirch, a longtime child care provider in Oshkosh, said her 24-child business never closed this spring as COVID cases stayed low in her western Nebraska county.

But Kirch still lost half of her children and income this spring before returning to nearly full capacity in July. She may have had to shut down her business if she hadn’t received a PPP loan, she says.

Kirch thinks her child care will make it, so long as COVID doesn’t hammer Garden County. If the virus does spread in the area, the future darkens.

“As this year has gone on, we have gotten into a better routine and had more structure here,” she said. “We’re sticking together. So that’s good.

“But I don’t think we are ever going to be normal again.”

Matthew Hansen, managing editor at the Buffett Institute, is a longtime Nebraska newspaper columnist.

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