Venice Ray was eager to return to work when Texas announced last week that child care centers, like the one she was laid off from in March, could immediately reopen. But re-enrolling her 4-year-old son? That gave her pause.
As many restaurants, hair salons and shopping malls across the country welcome back customers, some states are allowing day care centers and preschools to reopen, acknowledging that child care plays a foundational role in the American economy.
But for millions of working parents like Ms. Ray, the choice to send their children back to a place known for spreading germs, even in more normal times, is not an easy one. And in an industry operating on razor-thin margins, the survival of many child care centers is in doubt.
The coronavirus cost the industry more than 355,000 jobs in March and April, about a third of the pre-pandemic total. And a survey by an industry group showed that many providers were so short of cash that they could go out of business permanently, unable to pay rent, mortgage payments or other fixed costs.
Democrats in Congress are introducing bills this week and next that would spend $50 billion to keep centers afloat and provide tuition relief to families. The bills would also help put in place new safety measures, which could be vital to ensuring that parents feel safe re-enrolling their children.
In a majority of American families, both parents hold jobs, making child care essential for a functioning economy. But the United States is rare among industrialized nations in not providing a universal option, leaving families with the burden of figuring it out themselves. Many struggle even in the best of times.
Experts now worry that if licensed centers disappear during the pandemic, more families will resort to ad hoc arrangements, such as relying on relatives, friends or neighbors who lack experience, let alone formal training in safety or education.
But for families balancing professional and economic pressures with health concerns, the idea of re-enrolling in center-based care can be profoundly anxiety-provoking, even with new sanitation and social distancing practices required by federal and state guidelines.
That is the situation the Ray family found itself in. Ms. Ray is confident that the new procedures will make it safe for her to return to work when her employer, a day care and preschool associated with a Longview, Texas, church, reopens on June 2.
But as a mother, she felt unsure about whether her son should go back, too. In particular, she was concerned about her in-laws, who have been babysitting her older children. What if the youngest, their 4-year-old son, brought the virus home and passed it on to them?
“It’s a really tough one,” she said. After days of debate, she and her husband decided that Ms. Ray would go back to work — the family needs her $475-per-week salary, and she loves her job — but their son would go to his grandparents for care.
A similar conversation took place in Alison Larkin’s home in Chicago. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Ms. Larkin, a 35-year-old social work consultant, had a dream situation for her toddler, Clementine: a coveted spot in a respected day care just a few minutes away.
But now she and her husband, who have been trading child care shifts while working from home, are preparing for their current arrangement to last until there is a vaccine, even though Illinois is allowing day care centers to reopen this week.
“My sense of things is that the virus is not going anywhere for quite some time,” Ms. Larkin said. “This could be an indefinite state of being.”
Mandy Zaransky-Hurst, a mother and corporate executive in Chicago, has been sorely missing her 4-month-old’s day care since it was shut down in March. She has a full-time job as the chief operating officer of a training and development company. Her husband, who is also working from home, is a lawyer.
“It’s not sustainable,” Ms. Zaransky-Hurst said of their current arrangement, which requires her to frequently rise at 4 a.m. to begin a 10-hour workday, while also caring for their 6-year-old.
But at the same time, she worries that day care is not safe, given the constant flow of teachers and children in and out.
“How can companies really expect their employees to return to work in a normal fashion?” she asked. “What true flexibility and understanding will companies give to employees who can’t send their kids back to day care?”
So far, there have not been major coronavirus outbreaks reported in child care centers in the United States, although one in Canada was the site of an alarming cluster of cases.
The industry typically serves more than 12 million children in the United States under 6, the majority of whom attend day cares in private homes. Providers are licensed by state and local governments, and must follow regulations for education, health and safety. Generally, experts recommend that one trained caretaker be responsible for no more than four infants, six toddlers or 10 preschoolers.
Under normal circumstances, the physical space required for a center to maintain social distancing depends heavily on the developmental stage of the children being cared for. Infants are more interested in adults than other babies, and are easier to space out than toddlers and preschoolers, who are social and frenetic. The space required for effective social distancing will vary greatly depending on the ages and temperament of children in a center.
Coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for child care centers to disinfect surfaces and shared objects several times per day; avoid toys, like stuffed animals, that cannot be easily washed; stagger children’s arrival time to limit contact between parents; and to seat and nap children at least six feet apart from one another. States are issuing their own guidelines, which can differ significantly.
Tennille Smalls, who runs a child care center out of her home in New Haven, Conn., is among the providers trying to make the necessary changes. Her business is surviving during the pandemic, but only precariously. Enrollment has fallen to four children from nine; their parents are essential health care workers.
Ms. Smalls received about $11,000 in federal relief loans, not nearly enough to cover her lost revenue and the costs of moving the center to a larger space over the summer, which is necessary for children and employees to maintain social distancing guidelines.
She has already signed a lease and begun planning renovations, such as installing toddler sinks and mounted dispensers for sanitizer, masks and gloves. To make ends meet, she and her business partner have reduced their own salaries.
“I’m nervous, but I’m not fearful,” Ms. Smalls said. She hopes her spacious new location will reassure nervous parents.
“Families will be able to tour it and say, ‘This is somewhere that I’m going to feel comfortable putting my most prized possession.’ ”
Ben Casselman contributed reporting.