Daycare Industry Squeezed Between Dropping Enrollments and Growing Need as Connecticut Moves to Reopen from COVID

Connecticut's childcare industry is operating at just 40 percent of its pre-COVID capacity

Four months after the Governor declared a state of emergency to slow the spread of COVID-19 and two months after the state began reopening, Connecticut’s childcare industry is operating at just 40 percent of its pre-COVID capacity, according to Commissioner of Early Childhood Beth Bye.

“Three weeks ago, we were at just 16 percent capacity and now we have more than doubled that,” Bye said. “But at the same time, as it reopens, it’s very uneven.”

Uneven, in the sense that in some areas of the state daycare providers are struggling to fill available slots and in others, families with infants and toddlers cannot find a center or home-based care to take a child.

“What we are seeing is just a big spotlight on a problem that was there before COVID and now it is only exacerbated,” said Bye. “The lack of infant and toddler options is a serious gap in our system.”

Before the pandemic, Connecticut was short an estimated 50,000 infant and toddler slots for daycare statewide.

Now given the temporary and permanent closure of many daycare centers and home-based providers, the question is how parents with children under the age of three will return to work.

And unlike many health and human services issues in Connecticut, the problem of childcare does not divide up easily by urban and suburban populations.

“It’s not like in suburbs there aren’t parents bringing their kids back because they can pay for private care. We haven’t noted a shortage by a particular region,” Bye said. “The story is there are some communities that don’t feel comfortable bringing their children back and others that can’t find somewhere to take their infant.”

The flip side of empty classrooms

On the one hand, many families with children under the age of three struggle to find daycare as they return to work, on the other hand, many providers for children aged three to five are unable to fill classrooms and may go out of business.

“Centers around us are closing and owners are coming to us to have us take on staff and families,” said April Lukasik, the founder of Bright & Early Children’s Learning Centers.

Lukasik said that three centers had reached out to Bright & Early to transfer their students.

“We are prepared and grateful we can help in different communities in Connecticut,” Lukasik said. “We are giving our existing families who haven’t returned yet the first option on spaces and then opening up to new families. It’s first come, first served.”

Even with these additional students, however, Bright & Early’s five centers remain at just about 50 percent of pre-COVID enrollment three weeks after reopening. The same is true at Essex Kindercare where so far just 20 of the usual 55 students have returned.

COVID-19 restrictions as of June 24 allow as many as 14 students aged 3 and up to share a classroom. However, that restriction is not the limiting factor for most centers, said Bye.

“Statewide parent demand, dependent on child age, is way down,” Bye said.

Both Lukasik and Heather Kjos, the director of Essex Kindercare, said they hope to see an increase in enrollment when schools reopen in September, but for the moment, that remains uncertain.

“Programs don’t know how many of their parents are trying to come back and they are trying to plan and it’s very difficult,” said Bye.

Bye said that her concern is how long the lag in enrollments will last. If the drop extends into months, centers and home-based providers will likely be forced to shut their doors for financial reasons. Already, in northwest Connecticut, Bye said, there are communities where only one facility remains in operation and the result is a waiting list.

“It’s a real crisis,” Bye said.

Not only are childcare businesses being forced to close due to low enrollment, but other businesses will suffer when parents are unable to return to work because of a lack of childcare options.

The Center for American Progress estimates that as much as 48 percent of the childcare capacity in the state could be lost due to COVID-19.

“Childcare is such an important part of our economy,” Bye said. “And we need to be prioritizing and supporting it.”

In the past five weeks, supported by $1 million of private donations, the Office of Early Childhood has created six additional family childhood networks to support home-based providers starting up. The idea is to help home-based options develop across the state because they are seen as a more stable option for families and the economy.

In March, as the economy was ordered to shutdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, just 25 percent of daycare centers remained open, compared to 60 percent of home-based providers.

“Coming out of COVID we expect families to choose smaller options,” Bye said. “I’m really excited about this partnership with philanthropy and being able to provide support to new ones that we need to open.”

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