Early childhood education centers facing stiff challenges

By Marlisa Harding | mharding@americanpress.com

The Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization focused on school readiness for young children, presented findings from its third round of surveys distributed to early childhood education centers in a teleconference on Wednesday. The results indicate that despite the state’s gradual reopening, childcare providers are still experiencing dramatic challenges as the state continues to battle COVID-19.

Wednesday’s release is based on a statewide survey conducted June 15-22 during which time ratios and group sizes for centers returned to pre-pandemic levels for children ages two and under and ratios increased from Phase One restrictions for ages three and older.

Libbie Sonnier, executive director, said the results reflect a need for “serious concern about the financial viability of the early care and education sector.”

The survey’s first key finding showed that 77 percent of providers surveyed experienced substantial financial losses due to COVID-19 shutdown and restrictions. The average loss being $110,000 per center for an estimated $137.5 million in collective losses across the state.

As the virus continues to damper enrollment numbers and teacher/student ratio, Sonnier said the losses will “likely only continue to grow.”

Secondly the survey found that the majority of open providers saw reduced enrollment rates. Even in June, when the state was in Phase Two of re-opening, 81 percent of providers were serving fewer students than they had in January with enrollment rates down by 30 percent.

“Early care and education centers cannot viably continue to operate without their clientele present to keep their doors open,” Timothy Manger, Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce president, said. This finding is reflective of a “really cyclical problem,” where parents struggle to return to work due to lack of available childcare, he said.

“Having our childcare centers open and available for parents is a critical piece of our economic viability going forward.”

Jenna Chiasson, Louisiana Department of Education assistant superintendent of academics, echoed Manger’s concern stating that 45 percent of centers surveyed stated they had a waiting list of families hoping to enroll. Restricted classroom sizes and decreased teacher/ student ratios are one cause of waiting lists but Chiasson said, “working parents will inevitably need to put their children back…When they do, they will be facing an early care and education sector that may have closed permanently or have a waiting list.”

Two-thirds of surveyed centers also indicated that they experienced challenges purchasing cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, Dr. Rachel Chatters, Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics president, said. “Without sufficient PPE and supplies our most valuable population and childcare workers are at risk for catching and spreading COVID.”

Finally, the results indicated that less than one in four open providers expected being able to survive long-term operations with the current smaller group sizes. “These are all small businesses,” Bill Hammack, Link Restaurant Group senior partner, said. “They operated on razor thin margins before this pandemic and obviously things are much worse now.”

Sonnier concluded the teleconference saying despite the “many unknowns still ahead” the need for increased financial investment is apparent. “Without increased investment in the early care and education sector now, facilitating access to quality, reliable early care and education, parents working across every industry will not be able to return to work to provide for their families and keep the Louisiana economy moving forward.”

Learn more or read the full report at https://www.policyinstitutela.org/covid-19-impact-child-care

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