Kimberly Speller is still getting used to the quiet. Before the pandemic, on a typical day, she’d welcome a dozen or so boisterous 3 and 4-year-olds onto her porch and into her home in West Philadelphia, where she lives and operates a home-based childcare center on a residential street with the help of one employee.
But since March, the people coming in and out of the three-story brick rowhouse have mostly been Speller and contractors.
“I’m getting my basement finished so that we can deal with social distancing, making sure each child has their own space,” Speller said in August. “I’ve had to think about ventilation in our place.”
Speller last saw the children she calls “her kids” six months ago, in March, when all childcare providers in the state — except those servicing essential workers — were forced to close as part of Governor Tom Wolf’s shutdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Wary of moving too quickly, Speller elected to take extra time to institute new safety protocols before reopening, spending thousands of dollars to make her home safe. She acquired PPE equipment for the children and additional toys to reduce sharing, wrote up policies for families covering issues like social distancing during pickup, and renovated her house.
For the last few months, Speller’s attitude has been: “It’s a little challenging but we’re going to get through it,” she says.
While she was closed, Speller continued to receive income from the state government. The vast majority of Speller’s families qualify for Child Care Works or Early Learning Resource Centers, the two state-run subsidy programs that help families with fewer resources afford childcare. Starting in mid-March, Pennsylvania’s government agreed to keep paying providers like Speller based on their pre-pandemic enrollment. (She also received a grant from an emergency fund spearheaded by the William Penn Foundation designed for childcare providers, along with funding from the CARES ACT.) But that relatively stable source of income has since dried up.
In July, the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) announced that on Sept. 1, the government would begin only paying centers based on how many children they have currently enrolled.
Speller had eyed a post-Labor Day reopening, despite knowing there’d be low enrollment. “My income was literally about to be half of what it was,” Speller says, expecting the center to be at half capacity. “Something is better than nothing.”
But a few days before opening, Speller received letters from the state office responsible for childcare subsidies, informing her that multiple families were currently ineligible and had to recertify with pay stubs before the state could release their funding. “We don’t know what’s going on. The parents are having a hard time getting their calls returned,” Speller says.
That half-sized income was suddenly looking like an even smaller fraction. Speller figured it would be enough to cover utilities but not all of her expenses, which are piling up due to COVID, such as the professional cleaners she’s hired. “Because of the delay on the subsidies, we’re waiting for them to recertify the parents before reopening,” she says. “What if they don’t qualify now?”
There’s a whole set of economic and geographic things you need to look at as to why some childcare centers are thriving and others aren’t.Dionne Wright-Chambers, Learn, Empower, Grow
Childcare providers operate on thin margins during the best of times, but the pandemic has made profitability less feasible, particularly for Black-owned centers and those anchored within low-income communities. From coast to coast, neighborhoods like Speller’s have suffered higher rates of serious illness from the virus, due to the disproportionate numbers of residents employed in sectors at high risk of transmission, such as healthcare, transportation, and the food industry. Add to that droves of people who now can’t work: Unemployment is significantly higher among Black workers, leaving parents with less money to spend and, because they’re at home, less in need of childcare.
As of late June, almost 40 percent of respondents to a nationwide survey of more than 5,000 providers — conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children — reported a certainty of permanent closure unless they receive additional government assistance. But that number was higher for minority-owned centers, roughly 50 percent of which were certain of shuttering for good.
Part of the reason, experts say, is that racial disparities have long existed in the sector. Black-owned childcare providers already suffered from a racial pay gap before the pandemic, making 84 cents for every $1 earned by their white peers in the industry. And they face broad systemic challenges which have contributed to Black-owned businesses closing at nearly twice the rate of American businesses between February and April, such as the higher likelihood of being denied for loans.
But the pandemic has also hit the communities that these centers serve especially hard, exacerbating the impact on their bottom line. Speller’s center, for example, lies within the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, one of nearly two dozen high-poverty communities across the country to receive special tax incentives from the federal government in an effort to boost economic mobility.
“If the parents aren’t working, then there isn’t demand for the childcare centers in that neighborhood to be open,” says Dionne Wright-Chambers, a consultant with Learn, Empower Grow, a Philadelphia-based firm that works with childcare centers, mostly in North and West Philadelphia.
Experts fear that the much-celebrated diversity of the childcare workforce is taking a hit as a result of recent events.
“Philly is poor. There’s a whole set of economic and geographic things you need to look at as to why some childcare centers are thriving and others aren’t,” says Wright-Chambers.
Low enrollment, high expenses
Many childcare providers have continued to charge tuition despite being closed. For Kimrenee Patterson, a home-based childcare provider in North Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood, that was never a consideration.
“I did not require our parents — private pay or receiving subsidies — to pay any amount of money during that amount of time while their child wasn’t here,” Patterson says.
Patterson was one of the first childcare centers to reopen after the shutdown order in March, when she went from a daily attendance of 12 children down to just one. Several essential workers and families who required childcare re-enrolled their children weeks later. But the decision to stop asking for tuition checks from families hurt her financially.
“From March 19 to July, we lost at least $50,000 in income,” Patterson says.
Even if she’d asked for tuition, some of the families would not have had the ability to pay. “I was a single mom for several years, so I understand how it can be a struggle,” she says.
Having a keen sense of the struggles families face can be a double-edged sword in the world of early childhood education (ECE).
“Many of [the teachers] are women of color who already have low levels of personal wealth and struggle to access credit,” says Stephanie Blake, the business partner of Wright-Chambers and a PhD candidate writing her dissertation on Black women’s careers within the childcare sector.
“So you can imagine, with the stress of the funding, they’re not getting paid enough to take care of their own family. A lot of the teachers are coming from the same neighborhoods as our children, and they’re dealing with a lot of the same implications and pressures of daily life,” Blake says.
The traditionally low pay, coupled with the added financial constraints of COVID-19, threatens to erode what racial diversity exists in the ECE workforce. About 40 percent of ECE teachers are women of color, whereas 80 percent of elementary and secondary teachers are white. The average salary of an ECE teacher in Pennsylvania is just $31,000 a year, less than half the average salary of an elementary school teacher.
“That’s why you hear a lot of mom-and-pop centers, smaller ones, aren’t probably opening back up,” says Blake. “Where are the funds coming from? ”
Enrollment is light across the city, based on Blake’s informal surveys of providers. Nationally, early-childhood education enrollment is down 67 percent since March, according to a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
For some providers, like Patterson, enrollment has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.
“The pandemic really hit us hard,” she says. Although there was a major loss to my company financially, we were able to survive because of good business practices.”
But even providers who bounce back from the pandemic face an uncertain financial landscape. “I know that at least half of the providers in West Philly are closed down, waiting to see what’s going to happen,” Speller says, referring to the snafu with the subsidies. “Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be jumping up and down, on my way to reopening.”