While many governors have closed K-12 schools for the remainder of the school year, child care continues to operate as an essential service in most states. This is certainly true for North Carolina. Why? Because many parents with young children need child care in order to work, and for those individuals who must continue to work during this public health emergency, child care remains an essential service so parents can continue working in hospitals, public safety, grocery stores, child care and other jobs that the public relies on for services or products at this time.
The current child care challenge
The challenge is that the economic model for operating child care as an essential service is not the model that child care center directors and family child care home-based providers based their business on when they first opened. Here’s what is known:
- Many child care centers across the country have closed. Some have been instructed to close by their governors. Others have closed as millions of parents are home and do not need to pay for child care. Sharply reduced payments by parents, which comprise program operating budgets, mean that programs can’t pay staff or meet fixed costs. In North Carolina, since January, more than half (56%) of child care centers have closed. About 30% of family child care home providers have closed.
- Some states such as North Carolina are continuing to make subsidy payments for low-income children (whether or not children attend). And, some states are paying for the cost of child care for essential personnel who must continue to work and who need child care (in North Carolina, essential personnel can receive child care assistance if family income is below 300% of the federal poverty level). But, because most programs do not serve either a high volume of children on subsidy or a high volume of children whose parents are essential employees, there is still a large gap between incoming revenue and operating costs to remain viable as a business.
- In some states, the number of children who can be served in each classroom is seriously restricted (e.g., 10 bodies in a classroom, which includes one or two teachers). Such restrictions make sense from a public health standpoint due to the need for social distancing; however, the economic impact of these restrictions on a child care program can reduce operating budgets by thousands of dollars per month (e.g., a classroom of 18 or 20 4-year olds that is now restricted to eight or nine children is an enormous reduction in program revenue that may have previously offset the cost of caring for infants and toddlers, which is typically far higher). While North Carolina is not currently restricting the number of children in child care classrooms, child enrollment is typically far below licensed capacity, which affects the viability of the economic model.
As states begin to re-open businesses and the nation slowly ramps up employment levels, the business of child care will face new challenges. Currently, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment compensation. In North Carolina, more than 500,000 people have applied for unemployment to date. How long it takes for those who are unemployed to re-enter the workforce is not known.
Three main questions to think about with regard to the economic model for child care
- What will parent preferences be until there is a vaccine that protects against COVID-19?
- What will the demand for paid child care be with millions of parents unemployed throughout the country and how long will it take for parents to gain employment? And,
- Until there is a vaccine, what will the new model for child care be (e.g., social distancing and public health protections that may reduce the number of children per classroom or setting)? Will parents desire group care settings and will they be able to afford the cost of fees related to the new model (even if temporary)?
The Bipartisan Policy Center recently released the results of a parent survey throughout the country related to child care use and concerns.
Parents with children under age 5 worry that their child care program won’t be open due to post-COVID-19 emergency closures.
- 54% of parents in urban areas, 44% of parents in suburban areas and 37% of parents in rural areas are concerned their child care program will not be open.
- 49% of parents with income less than $50,000, 47% of parents with income between $50,000 and $100,000 and 40% of parents with income more than $100,000 are concerned their child care program not be open.
Parents with children under age 5 worry that their child and family will be more likely to be exposed to COVID-19.
- 78% of parents in urban areas, 75% of parents in suburban areas and 68% of parents in rural areas are concerned that their child and family will be exposed to COVID-19.
- 67% of parents with income less than $50,000, 79% of parents with income between $50,000 and $100,000 and 74% of parents with income more than $100,000 are concerned that their child and family will be exposed to COVID-19.
Parents with children under age 5 are worried that they won’t be able to afford child care.
- 53% of parents in urban areas, 44% of parents in suburban areas and 46% of parents in rural areas are concerned they won’t be able to afford child care.
- 58% of parents with income less than $50,000, 49% of parents with income between $50,000 and $100,000 and 34% of parents with income more than $100,000 are concerned they won’t be able to afford child care.
Until there is a vaccine, and while child care is an essential service, the model for how that service is delivered needs to be rethought. In the past, the economic model for child care was fragile, but now it is unlikely to be supported by private pay family fees alone.
As states relax stay-at-home orders, what will parent preferences be for child care? What will parents be able to afford? Child care is essential; however, a new economic model is needed to ensure that the supply of child care meets parent preferences, ability to pay and is undertaken in a way that both meets public health safety needs as well as the cost of operating a program that supports the healthy development of children.
It is time for those discussions to begin. Simply relying on the past economic model will not work.
 NC Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) January 2020 operating child care programs compared to April initial estimates. https://ncchildcare.ncdhhs.gov/Portals/0/documents/pdf/S/statistical_detail_report_january_2019.pdf?ver=2019-02-01-095328-820
 NC Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE), Child Care Frequently Asked Questions for Providers, April 8, 2020, https://ncchildcare.ncdhhs.gov/Portals/0/documents/pdf/C/COVID-19_FAQ_for_Child_Care_Poviders.pdf?ver=2020-04-15-095004-747
 The Bipartisan Policy Center, Nationwide Survey: Child Care in the Time of Coronavirus, April 10. https://bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/nationwide-survey-child-care-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/