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D.C. day-care centers, shut out of stimulus money, struggle to hang on until children return

Violeta Chirino, co-owner of Semillitas Early Learning Center, isn’t sure how her facility will survive the pandemic. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In March, when schools and day-care centers shut down abruptly, Violeta Chirino, a co-owner of Semillitas Early Learning Center, knew she had some cushion: Like most child-care operators, she’d already collected that month’s fees from families.

In April, as the shutdown stretched on, Chirino and her co-owner told families they didn’t need to pay tuition. But the center had to make payroll, they said, so they asked them to pay what they could — and managed to collect 55 percent of the month’s regular revenue.

But now, as May arrives, Chirino said there is only so much she can expect families — who are taking financial hits of their own — to pay for a service they aren’t receiving, beyond daily Zoom calls with teachers. She was rejected for federal stimulus money that would have covered two months of payroll, and she isn’t expecting a lifeline from the government anytime soon.

“Right now we are working with whatever parents are giving us and trying to stretch it as far as possible,” Chirino said.

She and other D.C. early-childhood centers say their finances are in shambles as closures due to the novel coronavirus stretch on, and many fear they will have to shut down before they get the chance to reopen. Even if they do manage to survive until the city reopens, they're unsure how they'll afford to adhere to the recommended health and social distancing guidelines, which would require ample protective equipment and fewer children in classrooms.

At this D.C. day care, few kids, lots of hand-washing and a savior for this single mother.

Local officials have posted recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DC Health on how to operate early-childhood centers during a health emergency. Guidelines include limiting every room to no more than 10 people — including staff members — and having children nap at least six feet apart.

“We need masks and sanitizer, we need the cleaning supplies that are expensive and hard to find,” said Chirino, who also teaches at the center. “We use a big room that we divide, we need to see if we can operate with all of our children.” 

The District counts 470 early child-care facilities — private businesses and nonprofits that rely largely on monthly tuition fees. Low-income families can qualify for public aid, and the city is still paying subsidies to operators. But most day-care centers receive the bulk of their revenue from families paying out of pocket.

District day cares had already watched margins tighten in the past decade, as the city expanded its universal prekindergarten program. The 3- and 4-year-olds moved into the free public preschools, leaving private day-care centers with higher concentrations of infants and young toddlers, who require more supervision and are more expensive to care for.

At Semillitas, 23 families pay $1,800 a month for their children to attend the center, Chirino said. Two children qualify for government subsidies, which pay Semillitas about $1,400 per child. Of that revenue, 80 percent is divided among the 10 workers and the part-time maintenance worker she employs, who make about minimum wage.

Rent costs $5,000 a month for the 1,800-square-foot space. Chirino said her landlord, a church, allowed Semillitas to pay just half in April. But the church is struggling, too, and she doesn’t expect another reprieve. She also pays for insurance and supplies.

She said some of her employees have filed for unemployment benefits. But she is trying to pay as many as possible so they will return when Semillitas reopens, even though she knows her elderly and asthmatic employees may not return right away.

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She also knows that, despite all this effort, some families may not return right away, starving her center of needed revenue. “Even if we open, then there is no guarantee that parents are going to feel confident to come back,” Chirino said. 

Some child-care operators haven’t been as flexible. The D.C. attorney general’s office said it has received six complaints from families who said their day cares have required them to pay monthly fees to hold on to their slots. The office said it is examining the complaints, but there is not a clear-cut answer.

Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Action for Children, an advocacy organization, said many of the city’s child-care facilities applied for a piece of the federal aid for small businesses — and she expects more to apply in the coming weeks. So far she has only heard of a few that got them. A few dozen have also applied for local grants but have not heard back.

Berna Artis, head of School for Friends, said her early child-care center received a federal loan, which will cover payroll for its 18 employees for eight weeks. School for Friends is offering remote services during the closures, though Artis said no family is paying 100 percent of tuition costs.

“If we did not get this loan, it would be a big disaster,” Artis said. “I don’t know if we would be able to survive.” 

Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), whose young daughter attends Semillitas Early Learning Center, said the city has a shortage of day-care slots and cannot afford to lose any more. Her office is trying to determine how much money the city’s child-care operators would need to stay afloat.

But the city faces its own coronavirus-induced budget challenges, she said, making it unlikely the District can spend city funds to help. The aid would need to come from grants and private donations, she said.

“If these providers don’t survive, then how will we reopen the economy?” Nadeau said. “Where will workers send their kids?”

District officials have said businesses cannot be evicted during the health emergency, but they’ll still need to pay unpaid rent in the future. Jacky Howell, a longtime consultant for early-childhood education in the Washington region, said she is working with her clients to stretch their finances and envision what their centers would look like once they reopen.

Will parents be willing to do curbside drop-offs instead of walking their young children inside? How can a single-room facility ensure there are only 10 people in the room? And how can workers soothe crying children when shared stuffed animals are no longer safe?

“I’ve been in the field 48 years, lived through 9/11 and the sniper crisis, but, wow, what we will have to do to keep children and staff safe?” Howell said. “This is so different, how we are going to have to change.” 

Donna Mason, executive director of St. Albans Early Childhood Center, serves 250 children in 13 classrooms in Northwest Washington. She sent a survey to her families this week to ask how they would like St. Albans to operate when it reopens. She said one possibility includes staggering hours for families, with some children using the facility in the morning and others in the afternoon and evening.

But will be parents be willing to pay enough for that to cover her costs? Rent alone at her facility is $50,000 a month. Insurance for the center and the employees runs about $25,000 a month.

So far, she said, she has been able to provide her staff with their typical pay and benefits. But she did not receive a small-business loan and does not know how long she can stretch her finances.

“That was our hope. It was a nightmare,” Mason said of not getting the loan. “It was heartbreaking.”

For May, she stopped charging families and set up an online fundraiser so they could give what they wanted (and write it off on their taxes). Her families now face the same questions many parents do: How much to pay for a service they’re not getting now in hopes they get it soon?

Mia Cara’s 2-year-old son is enrolled at La Petite Academy of Washington, one of 38 child-care centers to remain open during the health emergency. But Cara and most families have stopped sending their children there, and the center has stopped charging them. Cara instead donates about $500 a month to a fund for employees at the center. It’s far less than what she usually pays, but Cara said her own household faces financial uncertainties.

“We are doing what we are able to,” Cara said. “But we are trying to be a little more conservative ourselves because we just don’t know.” 

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