Masked Durango parents arrived at Christ the King Lutheran Church last weekend ready to pick up brooms and clean. They were helping Cafe au Play, a nonprofit that helps parents connect through cooperative child care, move to a new, rent-free location. The move was spurred by the pandemic.
In La Plata County, already short on some child care options, the coronavirus has forced child care programs to get creative – or close shop.
Nationally, closures and enrollment declines have strained budgets for child care businesses. Meanwhile, families have struggled to balance work responsibilities and child care needs. In La Plata County, the virus’ impacts have decreased already-limited program capacities, forced program restructuring and left some local businesses worried about their financial futures.
“The longer (child care) centers are trying to operate with lower enrollment ... the harder it will be for them to sustain that business model,” said Heather Hawk, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County.
About 40% of child care programs nationwide said they will have to close permanently without additional public assistance, and more than 325,000 child care workers have lost their jobs since February, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
While child care is more available for school-aged children, programs that serve children younger than 5 are in short supply in La Plata County, Hawk said. Before the pandemic, the county had 83 child care slots available for about 470 children, from birth to 12 months old, living in the county. The number of available slots for that age group decreased by 25% after two child care businesses halted services because of the pandemic, she said.
Businesses also face additional costs and the task of complying with changing public health requirements, Hawk and other local child care professionals said.
Meanwhile, single parents and couples have struggled to balance work responsibilities and child care needs, cutting hours or quitting jobs, according The Washington Post, which cited a 2,500-person survey by Northeastern University.
For Liza Tregillus, co-founder of Durango’s Cafe au Play, and other local providers, the issue comes down to a central question:
“Parents have to survive and earn a living. So how do we creatively solve child care under pandemic conditions?” she said.
In La Plata County, child care staff members have cut capacity and adapted or entirely reformed programs to deal with the pandemic and changing public health requirements.
Camp Discovery, at the Powerhouse Science Center in Durango, cut its enrollment by half but could maintain full-day programming, much to parents’ relief. It closed its campus to the public during the week and implemented new safety protocols. Think Harry Potter- and Pokemon-themed activities plus masks and temperature checks.
While many parents were just happy for their kids to play with other kids, some did not feel comfortable even with mask-wearing policies. Others did not want their children in the program if masks were required, said Teresa Craft, deputy director.
Colvig Silver Camps, which normally serves 250 mostly out-of-state campers, canceled its summer programming entirely.
“It’s tough because our income is completely based on the summer program,” said Clay Colvig, the camp’s executive director. “We’ve got to figure out how to get through the year without a year’s worth of income and a situation where more than half of our expenses are still incurred without that income.”
For some parents, particularly those who cannot work remotely, any decrease in child care availability can have a significant impact on their ability to work outside the home, Hawk said.
When child care businesses see lower enrollment, it means less tuition income and, at times, debt accumulation and staff layoffs, she said.
“That creates a capacity issue again, because if you don’t have the workers, you can’t take the children,” Hawk said.
The situation isn’t entirely bleak, Hawk said. Some financial relief is available to child care businesses, like the United Way of Denver’s Keep the Lights On grants, which the state Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance helped fund.
Other programs did not have to cut capacity, but fundamentally reshaped their programs.
San Juan Mountain Association, formerly Durango Nature Studies, could not provide transportation and meet COVID-19 safety guidelines, said Megan Lanigan, an SJMA education coordinator. So staff members created new half-day outdoor trips in Durango twice a week and asked parents to commute to full-day programs at the Durango Nature Center, 30 minutes south of Durango, three days a week.
Cafe au Play, which focuses on supporting parents, changed locations entirely to save $1,500 on rent each month. Tregillus said having three playgrounds could encourage parents to allow for mask-free play, which is important for young children’s communication skill-building, she said.
Cafe au Play is also working with Komae, a cooperative child care application, to help parents connect during the pandemic. Tregillus hopes an additional COVID-19 risk-tolerance checklist on the platform can help hesitant parents find others who are taking similar precautions against the coronavirus.
“We’re not here to tell people what to do. We’re just trying to help them find each other and define it for themselves,” Tregillus said.