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Pandemic strains MN's already stressed childcare industry

"The parents fund us ... If they're out of work, that hurts my business and it's hard to come back from that."

MINNEAPOLIS — The number of children who attend Elizabeth Harris' Cottage Grove family daycare has been cut in half. 

On a typical weekday, she normally has 12 to 14 kids.

"Now with the pandemic, we are down to seven," she said. "We are down about 60% of our income due to that."

She says the parents of some of the children have lost their jobs and are now unable to pay for childcare.

"The parents fund us," she said. "If they're out of work, that hurts my business and it's hard to come back from that."

The pandemic has highlighted an issue which some in Minnesota's childcare industry have said needs to change: The current system is almost entirely funded on the backs of parents, with little government help. 

"So, as they leave the workplace, either because of executive orders or because they're staying at home to work, their funding stream gets pulled from childcare," said Ann McCully, Executive Director of Child Care Aware of Minnesota. "We're long past the time where we can expect people to pay completely out of pocket."

Margins at many daycare centers are already tight, and many smaller family providers don't qualify for unemployment. 

"We can't file for unemployment. We run like a small business," said Harris. "I'm trying to figure out how to supplement my income."

McCully worries that shrinking incomes during the pandemic will prompt some providers to leave the industry entirely, creating a more severe shortage than the one the state already has. She says some programs have already closed. 

"Now, when things get better, which they will, who is going to take care of the children?" Harris asked. "The families that can finally go back to work will struggle to find childcare ... The economy will continue to suffer."

Meanwhile, many families who have either chosen to pull their children from daycare, or whose providers have closed, continue to pay. 

Summer Schoer, of Fergus Falls, has been working at home with her children, ages one and three.

"I've been keeping them home, just because of this virus," she said. "I really don't want them exposed to it, or to expose other individuals."

But starting Monday, she won't have a choice. She says her provider is closing for two weeks, taking the two-week paid vacation she is entitled to in her contract. 

"Unfortunately, it's not like the vacation time she actually deserves," Schoer said. "She normally takes it during the summer or during the Christmas time."

Credit: Summer Schoer
Summer Schoer is now working from home with her children, ages one and three.

Schoer says she wants to continue paying her provider, because she doesn't want to create any hardships for her.

But she also recognizes that pulling her children from care to save money would mean forfeiting their spot. It's a move that would mean starting the often-stressful task of finding childcare all over again. 

In some parts of greater Minnesota, where the shortage is more severe, parents can sometimes sit on waiting lists for open daycare spots for more than a year. 

"I don't want to sit on a waiting list with another provider. So I'll keep paying whatever we have to to keep that spot, even though they'll be at home with me," she said. "These individuals still have to be paid, and we're the ones that have to do it. I think our daycare provider is so incredible and I don't want her to be feeling a hardship at all."

Some providers are offering to hold a family's spot at a discounted rate. 

Children of Tomorrow Learning Center in Chanhassen, which beginning Monday will be open only to children of workers considered essential under the Governor's order, is offering payment options for the parents who don't fall in the "essential" category. Parents who continue to pay a reduced tuition rate while their children are away will get discounts on future tuition as a "thank you." Parents also have the option of paying a one-time holding fee, equal to one week of tuition per child, which will ensure their spot is saved whenever the children return. 

Emergency grants for childcare workers are included in a coronavirus aid bill which Minnesota lawmakers passed Thursday. However, McCully says that money will only go so far. 

"When you start divvying that out among almost 9,000 childcare programs potentially across the state, many of whom are going to want to try to stay open, it isn't going to go as far as we'd like," she said. "But it's still a tremendous step in the right direction."

RELATED: Minnesota Legislature passes $330 million COVID-19 aid bill

RELATED: Why child care in MN is so expensive ... if you can find it

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