Iowa had a child care shortage pre-COVID and some providers won’t reopen

May 4, 2020 8:00 am

State Rep. Tracy Ehlert of Cedar Rapids is a registered child care provider. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Ehlert)

Before COVID-19, Iowa was experiencing a child care “crisis,” to the point that it was keeping parents out of the workforce at a time of record low unemployment. Now, as the state begins to reopen and parents return to work, some may find themselves starting the search all over again for affordable, quality care.

State Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, a licensed child care provider, says about 1,000 registered child-care centers have shut down since COVID-19 moved into the state in March. That’s based on Iowa Department of Human Services data from late April.

Most of those, over 800, are registered centers that normally take anywhere from 20 to 100 children, Ehlert said. The others are registered child development homes that can take eight to 16 children, depending on their category.  Editor’s note:  The previous sentence was updated to clarify the capacity of child development homes.

“Now, some may come back, some are just closed right now because their numbers are so low,” she said. “Some are just worried about the virus. It’s a lot more upkeep right now, because we have to do our deep cleaning every single night instead of just, you know, on the weekends. We’ve got to do some of it throughout the day. It’s just a lot to keep up with.”

Parents ‘are in limbo’ and so are child care providers

Providers who are open now may be seeing low and fluctuating numbers of children.

Ehlert, who also teaches in the Cedar Rapids school district when the Legislature is not in session, opened her summer child-care program early, after schools closed. But as of last week, she only had five children coming, including a nephew.

“Right now, all the parents are in limbo because a lot of the companies are going to keep them working from home throughout summer, some are even considering having them work from home for the rest of the year. In which case, they don’t know if they’re going to need child care, because it could be a way for them to save money,” Ehlert said.

Children who were previously attending full time are likely to switch to part time as parents who are working from home seek some respite, she noted. Providers aren’t sure if they are going to continue to struggle with low numbers or see a surge of demand because so many other programs have closed, she said.

The uncertainly is leading some larger programs to decide not to open their summer programs at all, she said, because they can’t plan for staffing needs.

Survey:  87% of child care providers plan to return

Mary Janssen is the children and family services director of Child Care Resources and Referral of Northeast Iowa, based in Black Hawk County. She said in her 19-county region, about 30% of providers are currently shut down.

A statewide survey conducted with DHS received 1,800 responses. Of those, 87% of providers are planning to reopen, Janssen said. “That gave me a little bit of, whew,” she said with a relieved sigh.

But that also means 13% are not expecting to reopen, which could add to Iowa’s child-care woes if and when the state and its businesses return to “normal.” As providers get back to work and realize they can’t operate anywhere near capacity for the short term, they may not be able to stay open.

Short-term assistance will be available

There has been some assistance offered to help support some child-care providers.  In March, DHS announced it would continue to pay child care assistance to providers even if the children stay home. But that only reaches the programs that take state assistance, Ehlert noted.

Some other states, like Vermont, have paid for all absences, even for private-pay children, she said. “That would have been huge. And I know that it’s a huge, huge, huge price tag on it. But I mean, that’s really what we need, something closer to that.”

Aid is also coming through the federal CARES Act that will help centers that have stayed in operation and those that had to close due to COVID-19 but are reopening. Families using child care assistance and essential workers using child care also will be eligible for CARES Act aid, Ehlert said. The Paycheck Protection Program has also helped some providers keep staff members on the payroll even if they aren’t open or working a capacity, Janssen said.

Janssen said DHS and Child Care Resources and Referral are also working together to help get needed and hard-to-find supplies to providers: hand sanitizer, thermometers, bleach, toilet paper, gloves and masks, etc. That’s something Ehlert said providers have found challenging, since they can’t get to the store at opening time when those items might still be on the shelves.

Child-care provider keeps kids 24/7 for meatpacking mom

That doesn’t change the fact that Iowa had a shortage of affordable child care before this pandemic happened and may face that challenge again as businesses bring workers back. The Iowa House, before the pandemic shut down the session, passed five bills on a single day aimed at trying to ease the shortage of child care capacity.

When lawmakers are able to return, we all need to recognize that child care is a prerequisite to restarting our economy.

Ehlert noted that child care workers are just as essential as those we now recognize as heroes. Those who work in health care, grocery stores, meatpacking plants and other vital operations couldn’t do that without child care. And child care workers are also at risk, as parents are exposed in the workforce.

Janssen said her organization will soon share a story with lawmakers about a provider who is now caring for some children 24/7, because their mother works for a meatpacker. “She took them in two weeks ago and she’s cared for them ever since. And the mom hasn’t seen them because she was exposed, obviously, too,” Janssen said. “I don’t think people think about that, you know.”

It’s time all of us start thinking about that.

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