‘A societal domino issue’: Advocates say help for child care providers key to economic recovery

A young child rides a trike in a room.
Children play on the indoor playground at Catholic Charities Northside Child Development Center in Minneapolis on Friday. The pandemic and last year's civil unrest have led to the children spending more time in the center instead of being outdoors.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hopkins Early Learning Center closed its doors forever in mid-December, after nearly four decades in operation. 

“We’ve described it as a grief cycle, because it takes a long time to get to acceptance,” said Jamie Bonczyk, the child care center’s director. 

When COVID-19 hit, Bonczyk’s program saw a huge drop in enrollment and a flurry of new public health guidelines. On top of that, Bonczyk learned that her program’s lease was about to end. 

“I think that you hope as a leader, somebody will swoop in and see this as a critical organization — and yet that didn’t happen,” she said.

Bonczyk’s revenue plunged to half what it was, but her costs remained the same — and in some cases, increased. When she scrambled to find help from local businesses or city leaders with costs or with a new place to rent, she soon found she wasn’t able to find help in all the places she’d normally look. 

A woman in a mask feeds two babies.
Child care worker Suoa Vang feeds two infants lunch at once at Catholic Charities Northside Child Development Center in Minneapolis on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“Every organization had their hair on fire,” she said. “So even if a business or a city employee, even when we spoke with them they would say, ‘We understand that child care is important to a vibrant community,’ But also, did they have to downsize? What are they doing to keep their own employees? COVID-19 is all-consuming.” 

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A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, paired with public health funds, helped her continue operating for several months into the pandemic, but it wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding. By September, she told families and 21 staff members the center would have to close for the 117 kids they were serving. 

“I think one of the things that COVID showed us is that the way that we fund early childhood,  there isn’t as much public funding to ensure that one bad thing that happens is going to take out an industry that supports all other industries,” Bonczyk said. “Everybody wants child care, but nobody’s paying for it. Parents are. But systems are not.”

Bonczyk’s experience is not an isolated one. In a recent report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, nearly half of Minnesota child care providers surveyed reported they are losing money by staying open during the pandemic. Most of the providers that responded reported facing so much uncertainty, they weren’t able to predict how much longer they’d be able to stay open.

But for an industry operating on a shoestring budget, reliant on an almost entirely female and often underpaid staff, devoid of the same systemic supports as the public K-12 system, some hope COVID-19 will provide an opportunity to fix systemic problems that plague the system set up to care for Minnesota’s youngest residents. 

“I think there was a lot that was exposed all at one time (during this pandemic),” Bonczyk said. “I really think we should take this opportunity to look at building back — it’s not even a better system because no system existed before — to lay the foundation for the success of our community in Minnesota. All our children will be better off if we make this investment early.” 

A young boy hides under a playground platform.
A young boy crawls under the indoor playground while kids at Catholic Charities Northside Child Development Center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Compared to other states, Minnesota has been doing relatively well supporting its caregivers. A September report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tracked which states had managed to keep child care providers open through late spring of last year. It found Minnesota was one of only nine states that had lost fewer than 25 percent of its providers. But since then, some providers, like Bonczyk’s center in Hopkins, have closed.

Those who have remained open have done so at a steep cost. 

‘It’s been very, very challenging’

Anne Parrett is the family services coordinator for Catholic Charities’ Northside Child Development Center in north Minneapolis. Her center has been open throughout the pandemic and all the unrest following the killing of George Floyd. She has gone to work every day with a mask on. She misses being able to smile at the infants and toddlers she works with, and interact with their families during drop-off time and community events. 

“It’s been stressful with all that’s gone on — with COVID on top of all the unrest in the neighborhood and the challenges we had to go through,” Parrett said. “There were even days we couldn’t go outside — not because of COVID, but because of all the unrest that’s going on.” 

Enrollment at Northside has drastically fluctuated since the beginning of the pandemic, as families have been forced into ever-changing plans and hard decisions over whether to keep their children home to avoid possible coronavirus exposure, or asking providers to take on more hours during school closures. 

The center’s administration and staff have faced huge learning curves and skyrocketing costs as they’ve implemented new public health requirements and adjusted to requests to help students with distance learning. And they’ve found themselves acting as caretakers for a community bereft of other help. 

Northside program director Kim Osborn said it’s been difficult to keep the center fully staffed. 

“It’s been very, very challenging,” Osborn said. “There’s a big fear of working during this time. We did have some staff leave because of that multigenerational family living and didn't want to put anyone at risk.” 

In some cases, Osborn has had to quarantine students or staff, and find money to pay for sick time. In that regard, COVID-19-related state emergency grants for child care providers have been a godsend. But the funding has helped with other needs, as well: the rising cost of cleaning supplies; paying staff for the extra time it takes to do temperature checks, extra disinfecting, homework and distance learning help; and to make up for lost revenue from classrooms shuttered after COVID-19 exposures. 

Osborn said state money has helped Northside stay open — and to be there for the community, when so much other support has disappeared. 

“The natural supports of people’s lives have just been missing,” she said. “You know, school has been missing. Family members not being able to visit is missing. Churches have been missing. Those natural supports have been very hard to manage without.” 

A childcare worker plays with two children on a slide.
Child care worker Stella Hewett plays with two children on the slide at Catholic Charities Northside Child Development Center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Dianne Haulcy is senior vice president for family engagement at Think Small, a nonprofit focused on early childhood education. She worries that state and federal lawmakers won’t do enough to ensure that child care providers like those at Northside will be able to continue supporting families as the pandemic stretches on and recovery begins. 

“It’s not complicated. I mean, we’re coming up on a year now of us being in this pandemic, and so we’re going to need financial support for early childhood providers for the foreseeable future,” Haulcy said. 

Minnesota has prioritized child care workers for vaccines. It has handed out $150 million in state and federal aid for child care providers. Officials have said they’re expecting to pass on another more than $100 million in federal child care stimulus.

Haulcy hopes the support will be steady enough to help child care programs and workers help everyone else stay on their feet through the end of the pandemic. 

“This is a societal domino issue,” Haulcy said. “When child care falls, then our workforce really struggles to be present. It really makes it difficult for us to reclaim our workforce and our economy.”

MPR News photojournalist Evan Frost contributed to this story.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.