Forty two 42 percent of day care centers in Mississippi have lost at least half of their revenue and 51 percent cannot currently pay even half of their monthly expenses, according to centers that responded to a survey by The Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning and the Center for Research Evaluation at the University of Mississippi.

Some officials are calling on the state to invest more in child care centers as the industry is pushed to the brink amid Mississippians heading back to work.

Two weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, Deneka Alexander, executive director of Tiny Steps Academy in Gulfport, reopened her child care center to support the parents working through the pandemic.

Her 10,000-square-foot facility can hold up to 150 children, but as parents have become unemployed or continue working from home after the economy screeched to a halt in March, her attendance dropped to fewer than 40 kids.

“Just imagine: lights, water and everything keeps going. I still have to provide food and you name it for my children and give them the best care,” Alexander told Mississippi Today in late May. “I really don’t know how long we’re going to be able to keep the doors open.”

Across the state, 42 percent of centers have lost at least half of their revenue and 51 percent cannot currently pay even half of their monthly expenses, according to responses from 425 centers through a survey conducted by The Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning and the Center for Research Evaluation at the University of Mississippi.

The survey did not distinguish between child care providers mostly reliant on government subsidies or centers with higher-income, private-pay customers.

Mississippi officials closed public schools in mid-March but did not make any determination about the state’s 1,462 licensed child care centers, more than half of which have closed. As of late May, just 636 remained open, according to the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

Local health officials told child care centers to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including increasing the intensity of cleaning and disinfecting within the facilities and limiting the number of children to each classroom, which requires additional staff at a time when child care centers are struggling to manage their budgets.

“It’s just been this crazy confusing set of circumstances that child care centers are finding themselves really in a difficult spot trying to respond to the needs of parents but remain solvent,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.

A crucial element of the overall economy, the nation’s child care system is a private industry, the burden of which falls on parents who oftentimes do not earn enough at their jobs to afford the weekly bill. Some lower income workers are eligible for subsidized child care, delivered through a voucher from the Child Care Payment Program portion of the federal Child Care Development Fund block grant. Parents must pay a copayment, a portion of the child care tuition, and they can use the voucher at any center that is approved by Human Services as a Child Care Payment Program provider.

But because of funding shortfalls, the voucher has only reached about 10 to 20 percent of parents who qualify based on their income, the Initiative estimates. Though the Department of Human Services reported that it eliminated the historically long wait list for the voucher by 2019, many parents continue to wait for approval, scraping together day care where they can. Some low-income parents may not qualify because of other eligibility barriers, such as the requirement they cooperate with child support enforcement.

Many providers in low-income areas try to work with these parents, Burnett said, sometimes providing uncompensated care with the hopes the parents will eventually receive the voucher — just one more reason the centers struggle financially.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services requested and received a waiver from the federal government in light of COVID-19 so it could keep paying vouchers to child care centers based on their enrollment before the virus hit, not by attendance, in March and April.

This policy helped the centers, especially those with a large voucher population, but it didn’t consider the centers in mostly low-income areas which serve many working parents without the subsidy and which were barely making ends meet before the virus.

For weeks, the centers also had to continue charging the voucher copayment to parents, even those whose children weren’t still attending, so that the centers could receive the subsidy, until the state finally secured another federal waiver to suspend that requirement.

“DHS was trying to be generous and supportive, and they were, to the extent that they took the step to get the waiver for the copayment, but the measure had less of an impact than DHS realizes,” Burnett told Mississippi Today.

Mississippi is receiving an additional $47 million in its Child Care Development Fund from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to aid the state’s working parents.

With its Childcare Crisis Assistance in Isolation Response Plan, Human Services and the Mississippi State Department of Health have offered emergency child care assistance to essential workers during the pandemic, such as heath care workers, first responders, emergency personnel and essential government workers, but not to other private essential employees such as grocery and retail workers. By May 22, Human Services had issued 695 emergency certificates and helped open two new emergency child care centers in Petal and Purvis. Another 318 centers were designated crisis assistance centers, which allowed them to take the emergency certificate.

“We have emergency and essential personnel risking their health and wellbeing every day to continue to provide the care and support we need to sustain our daily lives,” Human Services director Bob Anderson said in April. “They should not have the additional burden of finding both care and education for their children.”

The Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative has recommended the state take several additional steps to stabilize the child care delivery system and increase access to child care subsidies by suspending the copayment and relaxing certain requirements, such as child support enforcement.

“Some (centers) are at serious risk of permanently closing if prolonged COVID-19- related closures occur or enrollments decline. Enabling CCPP (Child Care Payment Program) to be robust and serve as many as possible will help preserve child care centers as critical support systems for parents who will have to start putting the pieces back together,” the Initiative said in an April 10 letter to Human Services.

As the state economy slowly reopens, Burnett worries about what will be left of the child care industry if the state fails to make targeted investments in its centers.

The irony now for Alexander is that since she has had to cut staff, while at the same time decreasing the ratio of children per worker, she cannot accept any more children, such as the few whose parents are returning to work.

“I have parents just lined up trying to get back into the facility, but they can’t come back because I can’t pay someone to have an extra, maybe, three children,” she said.

Alexander could have technically required the families who kept their kids home to continue paying the child care fee in order to “hold” their spot at her center, but she’s chosen not to impose that financial burden on her parents.

“In a time like this, there is no way I could look at my parents and say, ‘Hey, you have to continue to pay me,'” Alexander said. “So at this time I am just suffering through it.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.