Parents and child care providers confront coronavirus difficulties

  • Colby Lamprey waits for the lunch bell at the Merrimack Valley Day Care Services.

  • Lucas Kavkiewicz plays in the outdoor area of the Merrimack Valley Day Care Services in Concord on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Children get a spray down right before lunch at the Merrimack Valley Day Care Center in Concord on Friday. The staff practices safe distancing as much as possible with the children. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/23/2020 4:13:55 PM

Having a newborn baby is difficult enough, but Hillary d’Entremont never anticipated the challenges of raising an infant during a pandemic.

D’Entremont, who gave birth in January, had planned for her daughter to join her son at day care once she was 3 months old, but the spread of the coronavirus forced her and her children to stay at home.

Her 4-year-old son has attended Merrimack Valley Day Care Services in Concord for the past two years. Once the governor issued a stay-at-home order in March, d’Entremont delayed her daughter’s enrollment and took more time off from work in the food service industry. As restrictions loosened in May, d’Entremont, who is saving up to return to college, decided she couldn’t wait any longer and re-enrolled both her children.

The financial assistance from Merrimack Valley Day Care made d’Entremont’s decision to return to work possible.

“I was a little nervous with everything still going on,” she said, “but the virus was not going to go away completely, so I figured I would have to get back to reality eventually.”

Getting back to reality requires adjustments from working parents and child care providers as the economy reopens.

Marianne Barter, executive director of Merrimack Valley Day Care Services, fears that returning to normal means her organization will no longer be able to afford what has been an essential part of their mission for decades – supporting families in need. Approximately 70% of children who attend Merrimack Valley facilities come from families who require assistance, are considered at high risk for abuse or neglect, or have special needs, Barter said.

“No one can afford to pay for child care,” Barter said.

Merrimack Valley operates on a sliding-fee scale, which enables families to pay for care according to their income level. Many children also receive child care scholarships through a New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services program, which uses state and federal funds to subsidize the cost of care. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state scholarship program has continued its subsidy payments to child care facilities, whether or not the children continue to attend, allowing facilities to hold open spots for families.

Once the state scholarship payments cease at the end of the week, Barter worries that her center and others across the state will have to make tough business decisions to survive.

“Child care facilities are just hemorrhaging money right now,” she said.

Some centers have already closed completely, and the centers that are able to remain open have reduced their capacity to comply with social distancing guidelines, while still employing a full staff, paying bills, and taking extra precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.

The end of state and federal stimulus funding combined with the reopening of the economy and more parents’ return to work will mean that demand for child care will far outweigh the available supply, Barter says, and Merrimack Valley may be unable to serve as many families as it has in the past.

“I can either apply for funds to hold open spaces, even though people are clamoring to come here right now because demand is higher than supply, or I can fill those spaces and use the money for something else,” she said.

Barter notes that low-income families have been hit particularly hard by the virus, whether they have had to continue working as essential employees without hazard pay, have lost jobs, or have experienced other changes due to the pandemic.

“You have a family that’s under a tremendous amount of stress anyway, and then you add a pandemic on top of it,” Barter said. “That’s something we worry about a lot.”

Merrimack Valley hopes to stay as close to the 70% figure as possible as they reopen, but Barter fears economic constraints will force her centers to enroll children whose families will not need to wait on state subsidies or income from a new job in order to pay for childcare.

“I’m worried that during the time [low-income families] need to get back on their feet, the spaces are going to disappear,” she said.

The Merrimack Valley center is not alone in confronting these issues. Other child care providers are facing the same dilemma of economics versus safety as the economy reopens.

On a Zoom call with Sen. Maggie Hassan last Monday, several providers mentioned the essential role federal stimulus payments played in the short-term survival of their businesses but expressed concern about the long-term viability of operating under the constraints of the pandemic.

Sandra Cabrera of the Country Day School in Colebrook expressed concern for the fall, when flu season could mean a potential increase in COVID-19 cases.

“We don’t have a lot of positive cases in Coos County,” Cabrera said, “but the few that we have had, I see a significant effect on whether parents send their kids the week after someone has been confirmed.”

It will be difficult to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, regardless of what the future brings, said Donna Hajjar, owner of the Learning Path centers in Salem and Derry. Money that would normally go toward classroom improvements and staff raises is now simply keeping Hajjar’s doors open.

“As we get grant money, it’s just going to be playing catch-up,” she said. “We won’t have extra [money] for upkeep, for high-quality care, for supplying those classrooms with what they need.”

Hassan continues to push for a new COVID-19 relief package that would include $50 billion to stabilize child care centers in New Hampshire and across the country.

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