Childcare providers say they’re falling through the cracks without pandemic recovery aid

A play area at Little Hands Bilingual Montesorri Daycare in Anchorage. Child care providers are facing an uphill battle as sufficient pandemic relief funds have yet to materialize. (Facebook photo)

Childcare providers are facing an uphill battle as Alaska’s economy reopens.

Saddled with the increasing costs of new safety protocols along with lower revenues, programs are operating on razor thin margins. Many providers are still wondering if help will come.

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Little Hands Bilingual Montessori Daycare in Anchorage has two in-home locations that have a capacity for eight children each.

When the pandemic hit Alaska in March, Maria L. Heredia, Little Hand’s administrator, said three families immediately pulled their kids out.

“So right off the bat, we’d lost three positions for the daycare which, in a small business, is a big number.”

Heredia said she, and her mother who is the owner, did everything they could to keep the doors open. She said all of their applications to federal grant programs were denied and they used their savings to keep their staff on the payroll.

They did receive a small grant from the city for daycare assistance, Heredia said, but that was about it.

“We just basically drained our bank accounts to keep the business open.”

Little Hands did close for a time, Heredia said, but they’ve decided to reopen now that more families are looking for childcare. But she said she’s disillusioned with the entire assistance process.

“We just became very disappointed with all of the programs and all of these systems because we’re one of those small businesses that fall through the cracks and didn’t qualify for a lot of that stuff,” Heredia said.

Eventually, she said, they just stopped asking for help.

Heredia is hardly alone in her experience. According to Stephanie Berglund, CEO of thread, which monitors childcare in Alaska, about 64 percent of childcare providers in the state are currently open. But many are operating with lower enrollment while also having increased health and safety costs.

Related: As Alaska’s economy begins to reopen, Anchorage officials say the city is facing a childcare shortage

Debra Rodriguez is the Executive Director of Bright Beginnings Early Learning Center in Anchorage and Eagle River.

Rodriguez said she also closed her centers for a time when the pandemic hit and enrollment at her centers plummeted to 25 percent. Even though she’s been able to reopen, each of her four centers are still at less than 50 percent capacity.

Promotional photo of Bright Beginning Early Learning Center in Anchorage (Photo courtesy of Debra Rodriguez)

Rodriguez said many people don’t have an appreciation for child care providers.

“The childcare industry has really struggled to even gain recognition as a legitimate industry,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of people have this view of us just being babysitters. And it’s so opposite of the truth.”

Rodriguez said she feels like the child care industry has been an afterthought during the pandemic.

Even down to constantly shifting guidelines, she said, that at first suggested child care providers use cleaning products that are unsafe for children or suggesting toddlers maintain 6 feet of physical distance. Rodriguez said that guidance, which she initially called not practical or possible, has since been revised.

Related: Some Alaska summer camps prepare to reopen with new rules, reduced capacity

Back in April, the state Child Care Program Office told all child care providers the office could provide monthly relief payments beginning in April. The payments were to be used to help providers cover the cost of supplies, keep staff, and to reopen or remain operational during the pandemic. The notice said it anticipated funding would be available through June.

“We were excited because we expected that funding to be just what we would need to be able to ride out the next several months,” Rodriguez said.

But providers never received more than one payment. Many, like Rodriguez, were expecting three to cover the expenses and losses for the months of March, April, and May.

Another notice from the Child Care Program Office dated May 14 explained that funding had run out due to overwhelming demand.

Alaska’s childcare providers requested a total of $9,037,739. The office was only allocated $6,400,000 in federal CARES Act funds, an amount that they found out after announcing the plan for monthly payments to providers. The state kicked in the rest to to cover the initial request. But the office now estimates that it will need $20 million dollars to cover the additional need.

The notice said the office is working with Alaska’s Congressional delegation to find more money.

Rodriguez said she’s also reaching out to legislators.

“We have been flooding them with phone calls and emails and, and letters just explaining our situations and just the lack of funding that’s there for us to stay alive,” Rodriguez said.

State officials did not respond to a request for comment at the time of this report.

Representative Ivy Spohnholz, a Democrat from Anchorage, said she too is anxiously awaiting an announcement from the department.

Spohnholz, whose husband ran a non-profit child development center for several years, said she understands just how precarious the financial side of childcare is under normal circumstances.

But beyond keeping providers afloat, Spohnholz said childcare is essential to successfully reopening Alaska’s economy.

“We can’t have workers go back to work if they don’t have stable childcare,” Spohnholz said. “[That] makes it just so important that the department find funding to make sure that these childcare providers, which are mom and pop shops for the most part across the state of Alaska, are able to stay open and don’t close because of their inability to pay their bills.”

Related: LISTEN: As parents head back to work, childcare providers are struggling to meet demand

Rodriguez, of Bright Beginnings, said she’s cautiously hopeful that her business will survive. It’s the only business she’s ever known.

“We’re certainly living everyday like we’re going to be here for 18 more years,” Rodriguez said, “I can’t see myself doing anything else because it’s such a rewarding career to just be able to get people off to the right start to their lives and provide the skills that they need to productive and effective and well adjusted. It’s all I’ve ever done and all I ever will do.”