MONROE — At Noah’s Ark, a child care center in Monroe, teachers are now “constantly washing toys,” said director Ruby Clark.
Every day, the staff is washing loads of laundry, sanitizing rooms and checking the children’s temperatures and their own temperatures for signs of fever. Parents are asked to use hand sanitizer before touching a finger to the center’s keyless entry.
Gloves were already standard for diaper changes or any “bathroom incident,” Clark said, but social distancing with young children is “more of a trick.”
“We do our best,” she said.
Since Gov. Tony Evers issued emergency “Safer-at-Home” orders in March to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, child care providers in Wisconsin have faced a predicament: stay open to care for the children of frontline essential workers or close.
Either way they’re losing money. Help has been slow to come or too little too late.
Local child care providers say they’re not getting enough government support or guidance and, in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed more than 50,000 nationwide and 300 in Wisconsin as of April 28, the situation is laying bare how undervalued and underpaid child care workers are in general.
“We’re treated as babysitters. We’re professionals. We’re educators. We’re the backbone of our communities,” said Corrine Hendrickson, who had 14 enrolled at her in-home daycare and preschool program in New Glarus until she decided to close in March. One of her sons has viral-induced asthma, and her husband is a full-time firefighter. Given how contagious the respiratory illness COVID-19 is, she didn’t see a way to stay open safely.
Even before the pandemic, child care providers were struggling to stay afloat, Hendrickson said. In Wisconsin, since 2010, 68% of in-home daycares and 9% of group centers disappeared. A survey in March found that, without aid, only 11% of child care programs were “confident” they could re-open after the coronavirus crisis.
We’re treated as babysitters. We’re professionals. We’re educators. We’re the backbone of our communitiesCorrine Hendrickson, New Glarus
In a letter to state and federal representatives in late March, Hendrickson and other members of the Green County Child Care Network asked legislators to keep the governor’s provisions for emergency funding to sustain child care.
“We are truly concerned that a fraction of our programs will be able to financially recover after the pandemic ends,” they wrote.
The provisions they asked for, like hazard pay, didn’t survive to make it back to Evers’ desk. When the governor signed the COVID-19 response legislation April 15, he noted that it “falls short of what is needed” and he decried the lack of political support for “critical workers like first responders, childcare providers and healthcare workers who are risking their lives going to work every day.”
‘It’s gonna hurt’
Noah’s Ark is one of several local providers that chose to stay open following the governor’s March 18 emergency order to restrict the size of child care settings to a maximum of 50 children and 10 teachers. The center is only serving essential workers and is down to about 20 to 25 children.
“Half of our staff is at home not working,” and the rest are working at reduced hours, Clark said. Some staff members decided to stay home due to underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk with COVID-19.
The child care teachers who are still working are suddenly frontline workers in a pandemic. Child care workers expect to catch colds and pink eye in their workplace, Clark said, but not a potentially “life-altering” illness.
“That’s a huge added stress to all of us working, even though we understand how important it is to stay working” to support other essential workers, she said.
People don’t realize what my staff is going through. We’re constantly sanitizing, we’re taking temps, we’re social distancing. We’re on the front lines... What would our businesses do in town without the child cares? It’s needed, but it’s not looked on as a profession yet. It’s kind of a sore spot for me.Kris Hartwig, Rainbow Childcare in Monroe
Kris Hartwig, administrator of the nonprofit Rainbow Childcare in Monroe, decided with her board of directors to also stay open, but she’s worried about the future.
“It’s going to be a horrible impact, just like any other small business,” she said. Still, she supports stay-at-home orders and size restrictions on child care facilities. “They had the right idea... It’s gonna hurt, but it was the right idea.”
Rainbow normally employs 21 and is licensed for 198 children. After layoffs, a staff of 10 is juggling schedules to care for 32 children and undertaking health precautions like holding babies using a blanket as a barrier.
“People don’t realize what my staff is going through,” she said. “We’re constantly sanitizing, we’re taking temps, we’re social distancing. We’re on the front lines... What would our businesses do in town without the child cares? It’s needed, but it’s not looked on as a profession yet. It’s kind of a sore spot for me.”
“We run a great curriculum here. I’ve got super teachers that know what they’re doing, and yet I can’t pay them (enough,)” she said. If she paid them more, “I would out-price myself.”
‘On the backs of working parents’
Amanda Fields, a Monroe attorney who serves on the Rainbow board of directors, said child care workers are “overlooked.”
Longitudinal studies suggest quality early childhood education has significant, lifelong advantages that benefit society, yet child care is among the worst paying jobs, at an average hourly wage of $11.37 in Wisconsin. Turnover is high, according the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite the low pay, it’s “very expensive for parents to send their children to daycare,” said Fields. “Something has to happen so we can afford to pay those teachers more. ... Hopefully after this, people will see how important they are.”
Child care is “operating on the backs of working parents,” even as schools and Head Start programs get “decent public support,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.
Evers’ failed effort earlier in April to get child care provisions in his COVID-19 relief bill “isn’t surprising considering the partisanship of our state right now,” Schmidt said.
There is another chance for relief for Wisconsin: $51 million in federal child care grants through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES). But, as Evers’ Safer at Home order entered its sixth week in the final days of April, the money was still in limbo. To move forward, it requires a plan from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and approval through the state Joint Committee on Finance, which could take weeks.
Hannah Akbik, spokesperson for committee member Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), said Evers’ relief bill would have allowed DCF more flexibility and money to help child care workers, but since Republicans removed those provisions from their bill, DCF is forced to “come begging” to the Joint Committee on Finance for approval to spend the federal money.
“That is why Senator Erpenbach has said that there is more work to be done to relieve Wisconsinites from this crisis,” she said in a statement to the Times.
(It's) very expensive for parents to send their children to daycare. Something has to happen so we can afford to pay those teachers more. ... Hopefully after this, people will see how important they are.Amanda Fields, Monroe attorney
‘It’s always such a need’
As the wife of a dairy farmer, Andrea Priebe is used to the “up and down” of the dairy industry. But she “never in a million years” expected a disruption in her own line of work running an in-home daycare in Monroe, Little Rascals Family Child Care.
Daycare doesn’t pay much but “it’s always such a need,” she said. “And then, boom, people are told to stay home and work from home.”
Priebe’s in-home daycare serves the children of grade school teachers. They’re contracted to pay her through the end of the school year, she said, so even though she is closed because public schools are closed and her parents are working from home, she hasn’t taken a financial hit — yet.
“This year, I’m a little worried about the summer. The farm isn’t going to make any money. What we make on the farm usually pays the household bills,” she said. “For the daycares that aren’t being paid, I don’t know how they’re going to survive.”
Priebe is president of the Green County Child Care Network and said membership has, for years, been “dwindling down to hardly anybody.” When she started her daycare in 2003, the number of in-home licensed child care providers within the School District of Monroe was about 30.
“Today we have eight,” she said.
To have this experience now with COVID-19 has made me less hopeful for change. ... I think our whole system needs to change.Brooke Skidmore, co-owner of The Growing Tree in New Glarus
Systematic change needed
One of the biggest challenges child care providers say they’ve faced in the COVID-19 crisis is confusing or absent guidance. At the same time Evers put size restrictions on child care facilities, for example, DCF lifted many regulatory restrictions like caps on the number of children allowed at in-home daycares.
“I was appalled that basically all the rules were being thrown out the window and there didn’t seem to be much regard for the safety of the children,” Hendrickson said. “I could have taken 50 kids, 24 hours per day.”
“Thus far,” Priebe said, “I think it’s unclear what’s essential and what’s not essential for daycare workers.”
Brooke Skidmore, co-owner of The Growing Tree in New Glarus, wanted to stay open to serve essential workers, but decided to close her center in March because she didn’t feel she could safely remain open without the guidance of a health official and provisions for personal protective equipment.
“It’s been a tough decision. I’ve had really supportive parents and teachers,” she said.
Like a few other providers locally, she’s been lucky enough to get approved for an emergency Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration. It doesn’t cover her own lost income and runs out after eight weeks, she said.
A vocal advocate for early childhood education, Skidmore said “to have this experience now with COVID-19 has made me less hopeful for change. ... I think our whole system needs to change.”
She wonders, if public support isn’t there during a pandemic, when will it be?