RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Operators of child care centers across North Carolina told legislators Thursday they need additional help from the state as enrollment has dropped significantly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We still need more financial support or we risk many more childcare programs having to close permanently because they can’t continue to pay the bills and keep staff and continue to pay for the cleaning and hygiene supplies that have been enhanced,” said Zac Everhart, chair of the North Carolina Child Care Commission and co-owner of Excel Learning Centers.
The Department of Health and Human Services says enrollment in child care centers is about 43 percent of what it was February.
Through funding from the federal CARES Act, the state has spent or allocated millions of dollars to try to keep child care centers operating including: $34.7 million for emergency child care subsidies, $38.2 million for bonuses for teachers and staff as well as $80 million in operational grants, among other measures.
Everhart said that funding has been critical but questioned what will happen if it runs out.
“I’m afraid the storm may still be offshore,” he said.
The discussion came as state lawmakers consider how to spend the remaining funding given to North Carolina through the CARES Act, which is at least $552 million. The General Assembly will reconvene Sept. 2.
Facing a potential budget shortfall of about $4.2 billion, the state is also awaiting potential action by Congress on another stimulus bill that could include funding for states. However, talks on a compromise between Democrats and Republicans have stalled.
“We will continue to support and do the things we need to do to keep you guys open,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) “Employees can’t go back to work if they don’t have an adequate source for their children to be taken care of, and so we’re very anxious to put together the next package to support you.”
Lauren Hayworth, director of operations at A Child’s World Learning Center, said though enrollment has fallen they’ve had to maintain staffing levels to operate in accordance with health protocols and limit the number of children and adults who are interacting with each other on a given day.
“If we don’t have that help continue, then we’re not going to make it past this point,” she said. “We’re kind of month-to-month figuring out how things will work.”
She said agencies like hers are trying to find ways to continue operating until the time more people begin returning to work and demand for child care increases. She said that could be several months away, creating uncertainty about how many child care centers will be able to stay open long enough to get to that point.
Hayworth is also on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Licensed Child Care Association.
She said some parents have expressed concerns about bringing their kids back to day care during the pandemic.
NC DHHS says there have been 21 COVID-19 clusters reported in child care settings since June 22. Of those clusters, there have been 63 cases among kids and 63 cases among staff members. One staff member has died.
Hayworth said there were two positive cases among staff members at one of her company’s day care centers, but that was contained within two classrooms. So, she said they only had to close that portion of the building for two weeks in accordance with health guidelines.
“Then we were able to remain open for all of the older kids, which was a huge deal for those parents. Many of them are essential workers. They can’t work from home,” she said.
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