Erika Felt says that if all of the parents pull their children from her Omaha in-home child care, "I'm going to be homeless."
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
Last week, two children at Erika Felt’s in-home child care sweetly hugged one another. It was the sort of hug that normally makes Felt, a longtime Omaha child care provider, smile with satisfaction.
Last week it made her want to cry.
“The children want to stay close together,” Felt says. “They are scared. We all are.
“But I had to tell them last week, ‘You can love them, but you can’t hug them.’ It’s something that in my wildest dreams I never thought I would say to a 5-year-old.”
Felt and nearly every child care provider in Nebraska currently find themselves stuck in an impossible situation, making decisions they couldn’t have fathomed making even a month ago.
Many of the state’s child care providers are terrified for their health, their employees’ health, and the health of the children in their care during the coronavirus crisis, according to a new statewide survey by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. (Learn more and read the survey highlights at buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/resources/covid-19.)
Providers know that children don’t do social distancing. They know that children, who are often less affected by the virus, could easily pass it to one another, and then to their parents, their grandparents, and the wider community. And many providers, while diligently sanitizing, report that it’s both hard to get ample cleaning supplies and hard to clean every toy every time a child touches it.
“The bar is closed. The nail salon is closed. Banks are closing their lobbies. Banks! The school is closed,” says Stephanie Briggs, owner of the Kinder Academy in Bruning, who shuttered her child care last week. “You tell me: Is K-12 more important than birth to 5? Is everyone else’s safety more important than ours?”
But many providers are also terrified about what will happen if they do shut their doors. Many have already lost a giant chunk of their income as parents keep their children at home, either because they have decided it’s safer or because someone in the family has been laid off. Many providers have already furloughed employees and are wading through oft-confusing government aid, including expanded unemployment and small business loans.
And many are worried that, if they lock their doors, they will never reopen them.
Fewer than 25 percent of Nebraska child care providers say they can survive closing for two or three weeks, according to the Buffett Institute survey results.
And hardly any Nebraska child care provider believes she can survive closing for more than a month. Despite this, some 400 child care providers have already closed, at least temporarily, according to Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“I pay rent. This morning, when I get off the phone, I will be paying my rent with my credit card,” says Felt, who has lost three of her six regular children at her northwest Omaha in-home child care. A fourth child was kept at home for the first time Wednesday, though that child’s parents are continuing to pay.
“If I lose all my kids the reality is pretty simple,” Felt says. “I’m going to be homeless.”
The people who care for and educate Nebraska’s young children are now asking themselves hard-to-answer questions: Do I stay open or do I close? Can I afford to close? Can I afford not to?
Experts say that the excruciating decisions that Nebraska child care providers currently face highlight two truths about our state’s early care and education system.
One: Early childhood care and education is crucial to the state, its economy, and its future.
If that wasn’t obvious before, it’s blindingly so now.
“If we’re going to talk about essential personnel…if you work in a hospital or at a grocery store, and can’t watch your child for a period of time, then the next question is: ‘Who is going to watch my child?’ So yes, child care providers are essential,” says Betty Medinger, senior vice president at the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.
Two: Despite early childhood care and education’s obvious importance, the Nebraska system is built upon a wildly shaky economic foundation.
In January, the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission highlighted that the median annual pay for an early childhood center teacher is a paltry $18,706. Low pay forces many early childhood caregivers and teachers to leave the profession in pursuit of economic stability—rampant turnover that hurts families and kids. The commission, composed of state leaders in government, business, community development, and education, has recommended that $911 million in federal, state, and private money is needed annually to fully fund the state’s early care and education system by 2030. Currently, the system operates on $459 million each year, roughly half of what is needed.
Nebraska’s child care system has trouble withstanding even the slightest setback. The system, and most providers, are completely unprepared for the four-alarm health-and-financial disaster of a global pandemic.
“This really is a building on fire,” says Cathy Lang, director of the Nebraska Business Development Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a member of the workforce commission. “And now we really have to put it out.”
The Nebraska Children and Families Foundation (NCFF) is spearheading the effort to help Nebraska child care providers. The organization has built a resource list for providers to link them to badly needed resources and help answer questions. To learn more visit www.nebraskachildren.org.
NCFF is also leading a group effort to build a website that will link health care providers, emergency responders, and other essential personnel with licensed Nebraska child care providers who are still open.
The Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative, in conjunction with NCFF, is offering $1,000 emergency relief funds. All licensed child care providers in the state who are currently open and serving families are eligible to apply. Funds are limited. Fill out an application here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Relief-Fund-NCFF-NECC
Lang also advises that child care owners and providers in need of help should call their local banker for financial advice, including on how to apply for the new small business loan and loan forgiveness programs. The Nebraska Business Development Center is offering free statewide consulting, she says. The Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project may be able to provide assistance to providers in rural Nebraska, Lang says. Providers should also join local coalitions or contact community leaders to learn more about what’s happening to combat the COVID-19 crisis in their towns, Medinger says.
As Nebraska’s early childhood organizations band together to try to help the state’s early childhood providers, the providers themselves continue to make a previously unfathomable decision:
Do I stay open to help essential workers and prevent the collapse of my business? Or do I close because I think it’s the safest thing for myself, my employees, the children, and their families?
Alicia Melo, the owner and operator of Little Explorers in Geneva, says she tossed and turned each night in late March, unable to sleep as she tried to decide what to do.
On the one hand, she has a mortgage on her child care building to pay. She’s a divorced parent with three kids. She employs trained, highly qualified teachers and doesn’t want to lay them off and lose them. She estimates that she can close for three weeks without taking out a business loan. And that’s only if most of her families continue to pay despite the closure.
On the other hand, her youngest child has asthma, and is thus at greater risk from the coronavirus. And Melo says she knows deep down that no child care is truly safe right now, even with the staff constantly sanitizing and disinfecting and praying no one gets sick.
As Melo explained the perilous safety situation to a dubious mom near the child care entrance last week, she and the mom watched as a boy pretended to be a dog. He put a toy in his mouth and growled. Then he took the toy out of his mouth and handed it to the mom’s baby. The baby put the toy in her mouth. And then the baby’s older brother came up and gave the baby a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
“I see what you mean now,” the mom said.
“I told the city administrator, ‘How would you like it if unrelated people came up and licked you right now?’” Melo says. “Because that is what’s happening at child cares all day, every day.”
After many sleepless nights, Melo made the excruciating decision to close March 30. It is the first time Little Explorers has closed for even one day since it opened in 2010. She’s asking her families to continue paying in the short term, though she isn’t sure how many will.
She has no idea how she will make it through the coronavirus crisis. She hopes that making the decision to close will make it easier to sleep.
“This is very, very, very hard,” Melo says. “Basically, we feel guilty if we are open. And we feel awful if we are closed.”
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.