Child care centers in Ohio are faced with tough choices right now.
The state is allowing them to return to normal student-teacher ratios and class sizes as of Aug. 9 after months of COVID-19-related restrictions, but they are still expected to follow a host of safety and hygiene measures. Employment is a challenge for many, as is enrollment.
Gov. Mike DeWine has said that centers can opt to maintain lower ratios and get a subsidy, instead of returning to pre-pandemic ratios, but details on the subsidies that will be available have yet to be shared.
Absent information on the subsidies, Andrea Kimmel, founder and CEO of Sweet Kiddles, plans to raise the ratios at her centers, though still aiming below the maximum number of students allowed at the different age levels. At this point, she’s just trying to break even, making enough to pay for the essentials like wages, food and curriculum supplies.
“So can we do this for six more months like this without additional support? Maybe, but it’s hard,” she said. “Maybe we’ll break even in August. That’s without upgrading things that need upgraded. That’s without needing repairs.”
Child care is a labor-intensive business that runs on low margins, said David Smith, president of the Ohio Association of Child Care Providers and executive director of the Horizon Education Centers in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties. The association represents owners and directors of child care centers across the state, and about 700 of the state’s approximately 4,000 centers are represented in its membership.
Raising the ratios gives the centers a “fighting chance” at reaching sustainability, Smith said. A lot of centers don’t have lines of credit or cash reserves to rely on during these lean times.
But returning to regular ratios won’t be a panacea, as some families are still hesitant to place their children in group settings and other centers face challenges to restaffing, either because of wage or safety concerns, Smith said.
“There are a lot of factors out there that are against us,” he said.
Take Sweet Kiddles, for example. Kimmel had to do significant layoffs early in the pandemic, letting about 100 of her 120 full- and part-time employees go.
Employment is now back up to about 80, but Kimmel is struggling to hire more. She’s found herself spending time in the classrooms, alongside directors and assistant directors, because she doesn’t have enough teachers. And she thinks the additional stimulus funding to those on unemployment has made that search more challenging.
“Our access to qualified labor right now has been nonexistent,” Kimmel said.
Child care centers typically operate at a capacity that allows them to break even or make a small profit, said Julia Hohner, communications and development director for Columbus-based public policy and research organization Groundwork Ohio. Many centers that did open with reduced ratios during the stay-at-home orders operated at a loss.
Costs for facilities and personnel are tough to cut. And revenue is limited to tuition dollars, either from families or the government for the limited number of families that qualify for publicly funded child care.
“And there’s not a ton of room for creating economies of scale,” Hohner said.
Groundwork Ohio is advocating for the next federal stimulus to include dedicated funding — $50 billion worth — for the child care sector.
The Early Childhood Enrichment Center in Shaker Heights opted to reduce employees’ hours, keeping them employed and with benefits, instead of doing layoffs, said executive director Beth Price.
The center closed for a time during the pandemic, but to help make up the difference once it reopened it significantly increased its tuition for families who don’t have a child care subsidy. Price said she hopes that increase is temporary. Additional government support would help her lower the tuition for her families and bring teachers back to their full hours. People need child care in order to go back to work, she said, but child care also has to be affordable enough for them to use it.
The center hasn’t had a problem with enrollment since reopening, but Price plans to keep capacity where it is now, at about 60%.
“For the health and safety of our children and staff and families, we will continue to do the lower ratios,” Price said.
The center typically serves students from the time they’re 18 months until they go to kindergarten, and it usually has 12 classrooms with about three teachers in each.
Under the lowered ratios, each open classroom has one teacher, Price said, and teachers who float between two or three classrooms to help out. And it’s still in the works, but the Early Childhood Enrichment Center plans to temporarily expand its services, adding school-age rooms for students in kindergarten through third grade, Price said. The goal will be to give students somewhere supervised to attend virtual school on their own devices.