April 30 was a daunting day for Susan Knox, the owner of a day care in Holbrook-Palmer Park. That's because that's the date she could no longer afford to pay her nine preschool teachers.
For the last eight weeks, the tuition-based Atherton preschool, which enrolls over 100 children ages 2-5 years old on a part-time basis, has been shut down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
"It has been challenging to say the least," Knox, who has rented the facility from the town for 22 years, said in an email. "I kept the teachers informed the whole way so they were not surprised. At least they are now eligible for unemployment. I am still hopeful for the PPP (the federal Paycheck Protection Program) loan so I can rehire them."
Although the Atherton City Council granted the preschool rent relief for April and May (the latest shelter-in-place order expires on May 31), Knox doesn't have the funds for teachers' salaries, she said.
Knox's situation is not unique. As of April 29, some 751 of San Mateo County's 927 licensed child care providers are currently closed because of the shelter-in-place order, said Christine Padilla, director of Build Up for San Mateo County's Children, an initiative to grow and improve the supply of child care and preschool facilities in the county.
"Right now people are doing makeshift child care," she said. "Keeping kids at home with them. Families are doing staggering shifts; it's a juggle. It's not the ideal or sustainable solution."
As of last week, six of Menlo Park's 58 licensed child care providers (40 centers and 18 home-based programs) remained open, said Dayna Chung, one of the organizers of the Menlo Park-based nonprofit Community Equity Collaborative.
The early childhood learning sector was already frail before the pandemic, with "razor-thin profit margins," Padilla said. "There isn't a very positive outlook right now."
(A nationwide survey conducted by National Association for the Education of Young Children in March found that of the 6,000 child care providers that participated, 17% said their business would not survive a closure of any amount of time without "significant public investment and support" that would allow them to compensate and retain staff, pay rent or mortgages, and cover other fixed costs. Some 30% could make it two weeks without support, while 16% could survive a month without support. Just 11% of providers said they'd be able to make it through a longer closure.
Although these centers are allowed to remain open to provide services to essential workers, such as first responders, it is complicated to operate with social distancing and parents are still hesitant to have their children in group care settings, Chung said. State officials said last month that schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year.
During Community Equity Collaborative's calls with 20 directors of local early childhood learning centers, they shared how there is a wide range of differentiating business models, said Karen Pace, who manages strategic development for All Five preschool in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, which has been closed during the pandemic. Some receive some state funding, while others are fully funded by tuition payments from families.
"Every institution wants to figure out how to continue paying teachers," Pace said. "Every institution has different financial pressures. Every director I've talked to is in strong contact with their teachers to help find a way to be supportive."
All Five happens to be in a particularly "great financial position" considering the circumstances and can continue to pay its teachers for about six months, Pace said.
According to Pace, the state funds the full tuition of about half of All Five families and has continued to pay these costs during the pandemic. A quarter of tuitions are partly funded by the state while the families pay a small amount. Another 25% pay full tuition and the majority of these families are donating at least some of their tuition costs to the school.
The preschool serves 24 students and is expected to add 25 more students through an expansion set for Aug. 24. Of course, whether that happens on schedule is "COVID willing," Pace said.
Filling gaps in child care
Some parents are turning to nannies to fill gaps in child care.
Stanford Park Nannies has seen about a 25-30% increase in requests for service for long-term temporary nannying coverage for the next one to four months, said Maggie Berkshire, co-owner of the Menlo Park-based nanny staffing service.
The company has cancelled short-term assignments — such as date nights and weekends — in an effort to limit the amount of exposure nannies have to multiple families.
Berkshire said she is prioritizing matching essential workers with nannies. Recently, this included matching a Stanford Health Care nurse practitioner who can't send their child to their usual day care and a single dad in San Mateo who is a police officer who has shared custody of his children, she said.
"We're trying to give families the coverage they need, but we're trying to be smart about it," she said.
Distance learning difficult for preschoolers
Although elementary, middle and high schools have moved to online learning, it's difficult to implement for children preschool-aged and younger, locals in the early childhood education field said.
Knox's teachers created some educational videos for families, but it is difficult to provide preschool remotely, she said. She is offering families refunds for April and May tuition. Knox told the Atherton City Council in a letter that her staff kept busy in April holding nine "circle times" per week on Zoom and making weekly art and activity bags for the families to pick up at the school. She said she doesn't feel comfortable with charging families for services when it's such a challenge for young children to take part in remote learning.
Kathrine Lacson, an All Five preschool teacher, posts videos of herself on YouTube singing and reading stories such as "Goodnight Moon" to keep in touch with her students.
"With all the news that we've been hearing (about COVID-19), making the videos just keeps your minds off of it," she said. "I don't really like being at home all the time. You start to miss the classroom and the kids and having them around. They're the source of positive energy for me, that's why I'm trying every means I can to have that positivity. The children seeing us (on video) will kind of let them have that connection with their school."
Relief and reopening plans
One way to help day cares and preschools survive would be for governments to set aside funds for them, early childhood education leaders said.
The San Mateo City Council recently earmarked $120,000 for rental assistance for home-based childcare programs.
Chung spoke at a recent Menlo Park City Council meeting to encourage council members to designate local grants to child care.
"If child care providers don't get back to work in large numbers, other workers can't return to work either," Padilla said. "It's a huge crisis."
Day cares and preschools also may face an uphill battle if they do reopen with new sets of safety guidelines, Chung said.
Smaller teacher-to-student ratios and enhanced cleaning requirements may cost day care and preschool operators more money than they'll make, Padilla said. Trying to keep children distanced from each other is also "borderline impossible," Chung said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.