From Our Corner: The State of Child Care in Central Illinois in the Wake of COVID-19

Child wearing mask inside car at drop off

In recent months, the national media has been reporting on the devastating effects the COVID pandemic continues to have on child care programs. Increased expenses, workforce shortages, stringent health guidelines, and reduced capacity have resulted in the closure of some centers and are threatening those that still remain open. In fact, some researchers are predicting that half of all U.S. child care centers could be lost to the pandemic.

In order to get an idea if these same challenges have been affecting child care centers in central Illinois, we contacted Dr. Natalie Danner, a postdoctoral research associate for the Illinois Early Learning Project at the Early Childhood Collaborative, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has been communicating with local child care centers on these issues. Here is her assessment:

“Most center directors are taking the pandemic very seriously, with increased health and safety precautions, even more than what is required for state/local requirements. This includes increased hand-washing/sanitizing, strict drop off procedures, mask requirements for children and adults, and cohort groupings. Less materials are out in the classrooms, most materials are sanitized after each use, children have separate seating and are in smaller groups for playground time.

What COVID-19 is impacting is both class size and class schedules due to cohort groupings. Because children can no longer “mix” in the mornings and late afternoons, this impacts both staffing and class size. Instead of all preschool classrooms merged in the late afternoon waiting for late pick up, there now may be only one class with late pick ups all together, meaning each class has similar pick up procedures. This is limiting some class schedules for centers. For example, there may not be enough children to arrive at 7 am to financially allow for another teacher to be there at that time. So some centers are reducing open hours in order to maintain staffing within cohort grouping models. Additionally “floating teachers” are now a thing of the past, as teachers can not move from classroom to classroom. This makes teacher breaks and lunch times a challenge for centers operating on slim margins. Another complication is that drop off often needs to be staggered, to allow for social distancing, and each child needs to have a health screening at the door. This impacts teachers out of the classroom and class schedules as well.

Interestingly, many centers that offer either Pre-K and up in a “private school” model or “after school child care” model are seeing an uptick in enrollment numbers as working families seek “in-person” care for their Pre-K through 3rd graders during online public school hours.

Smaller centers with only a few classrooms are being especially hard hit. Some are experiencing teachers leaving, either because they are asked to due to poor enrollment or they choose better paying options in grocery stores or for some on unemployment. These centers still have all their regular overhead costs to pay their rent, bills, and provide food. In addition, these directors need to provide COVID health and safety costs of hand sanitizer, staff PPE, forehead thermometers, extra cleaning and disinfecting supplies while having less tuition coming in. The equation is a losing one and it is only months for many of these centers to remain open.

Additionally it is a challenge families for young children to access COVID tests for their little ones. So if a child is excluded from childcare for COVID symptoms of cough or a fever, the family has to figure out how to get a test (and test negative) to come back, or stay excluded for two weeks. This is particularly challenging for working families to navigate, and they can lose their job and livelihood over these policies that exist to keep children, families, and teachers safe.”