Mary Graham is like thousands of child-care providers and workers in the region: teetering on the edge, terrified that the day-care center she runs, one of the many small engines that power the larger economy, may be unable to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
"Nobody is sleeping,” said Graham, executive director of Children’s Village, which cares for 425 children at Eighth and Arch Streets. “Can we survive a couple of weeks? Yes. But we can’t do this for months. The system couldn’t survive that.”
Pennsylvania child-care facilities have been closed since March 16. New Jersey day cares must close by Wednesday. In both states, officials have made exceptions for in-home day cares and centers that obtain waivers to care for the children of essential workers. Still, even those centers are in a tough position, with enrollment plunging.
Almost a million young children in Pennsylvania and New Jersey use child care services.
“We are the backbone of the economy,” said Leslie Spina, executive director of Kinder Academy, which has five locations in Northeast Philadelphia. “We are the underpinning for all who work. People can’t work if children don’t have a safe place to be.”
Day-care centers typically operate on the narrowest of margins, unable to withstand major disruptions, employing workers who make between $10 and $20 per hour. In a recent national survey, 30% of providers said they could not survive a closure of more than two weeks without significant support.
Some help is on the way: The federal economic stimulus package included money for grants and loans to help prop up day-care providers. And locally, officials on Monday announced the Philadelphia Emergency Fund for Stabilization of Early Education, launched with $5 million from the William Penn Foundation and $2 million from Vanguard Group.
That fund, open only to child-care providers in Philadelphia, will support paying basic expenses, finding new ways of reaching families during the coronavirus shutdown, and covering expenses associated with reopening.
“This emergency fund will help ensure that Philadelphia’s early learning sector remains stable so that our children continue to have access to high-quality early learning opportunities when our city emerges from this public health crisis,” Janet Haas, board chair of the William Penn Foundation, said in a statement.
Still, the entire industry remains fragile, experts said.
Tiffaney Hobbs, who operates Children of Destiny Learning Center in Southwest Philadelphia, had 127 children enrolled when the shutdown order came. Both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia pledged to continue to pay subsidies for a time, though not indefinitely.
Hobbs is also now missing both the co-pays of parents who receive subsidies and tuition from private-pay families.
“My liability insurance is $1,000 a month," Hobbs said. "The mortgage is still due. And at this point, I don’t know what my enrollment is going to be when we can open up. I don’t know how that’s going to affect being able to maintain the center.”
Most child-care providers contacted by The Inquirer said they charged private-pay clients for the last two weeks of March, but will not bill them going forward as long as the centers are closed.
Some centers are asking for all or part of private-pay families’ tuition, however.
Michelle Dixon, whose two children attend a day care in Philadelphia, hasn’t had to pay her 7-month-old’s tuition since the center closed. But its owners want her to pay half-tuition so her 3-year-old can participate in a distance learning curriculum. If Dixon opts out, she would have to withdraw her daughter and take a chance on whether a spot will be available once the pandemic passes.
“I’m a student, so there’s really no option for me,” Dixon said.
Day-care charges depend on location and age of children served. In Pennsylvania, the average cost is $814 a month, compared with $905 a month in New Jersey, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Genithia Geiger, who owns Young Scholars Daycare at 40th Street and Girard Avenue, is not holding her private-pay clients responsible for tuition during the shutdown.
“We know they need to put food on their table,” she said. Geiger opted to pay her staff when the center is closed, but warned her workers the paychecks may not last for the duration of the closure.
“I looked at my bank account this morning, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Geiger said. “The world is never going to be the same, and I don’t think the hurt is going to stop once this quarantine is over.”
Day-care providers typically have provisions for emergency days — about 10 a year — to be used for weather-related closures.
“Snow happens. We never anticipated a pandemic,” said Traci Childress, executive director of St. Mary’s Nursery School in University City, which serves 130 families.
Helen Gaul, who owns Gaul’s Nursery & Arts Centre in Maple Shade, shut her day care on March 20, ahead of the New Jersey order. Now, she waits and worries, she said.
“This could close us forever,” Gaul said. “Hopefully the state’s going to come through and help us out, but I don’t know.”
The stimulus package and the newly announced Philadelphia relief fund are encouraging for her center, said Graham, of Children’s Village.
“But we have no idea what it really means,” Graham said.
In the meantime, workers are making videos for the children — reading books, taking nature walks, and playing games to keep connected with their students. Hobbs drops off care packages for the children who attend her center.
On Friday, Pennsylvania approved 700 waivers allowing some providers to operate, serving only children of essential personnel.
Wonderspring, a nonprofit that operates centers in Montgomery County and West Philadelphia, shutdown March 12, and CEO Ann O’Brien isn’t sure when she’ll be able to reopen — or what things will look like when she does.
“We’ve reached out to every single vendor that we have,” O’Brien said. “I feel like I’m in the basement and all the pipes are running and I’m trying to pull all the levers I can pull to keep this going.”