Nearly half of South Carolina's families live in a child care desert. The pandemic may make it worse.
The economic fallout from the coronavirus may cause many child care centers to close permanently.
But, this is not surprising to those in the industry.
"It was always a weak industry, and it was very vulnerable," said Jamie Moon, president of the Institute for Child Success, a Greenville-based policy and research organization. "The pandemic has only served to highlight that vulnerability, and it's really a shame because it's such a critical part of having a robust economy."
Affordable child care is paramount to a successful workforce and a recovering economy, Moon said, particularly for essential workers who are unable to work from home.
Some studies have shown that high quality, early child care programs also have long-term benefits for children.
A study from the University of Minnesota followed 1,500 children in Chicago for more than 25 years. Researchers found children in early childhood programs were more likely to have "higher educational attainment, lower rates of serious crime and incarceration, and lower rates of depression."
South Carolina - a 'child care desert'
In April, the Institute for Child Success surveyed 100 child care centers in South Carolina.
A third of them said they could not survive a shutdown. Another third said they weren't sure if they could survive.
And it comes at a time when South Carolina's families already have few options.
Using Census data, the Center for American Progress found that more than four of every 10 South Carolina families live in places where there are more children than available childcare providers.
They're known as "child care deserts" and, according to Moon, families with infants, toddlers and pre-K kids end up struggling the most.
"There is a system that exists for K-12," Moon said. "But what happens before K? It's a hodgepodge of different things."
In Greenville County, families in lower-income and rural areas have fewer child care options than neighborhoods in the city with higher median incomes, according to a child care desert map created by the CAP and researchers at the University of Minnesota.
If centers end up closing because of the pandemic, that disparity will only grow, Moon said.
Once closed, some may never re-open
Even before the pandemic, it was difficult for parents to find open childcare slots.
"If you're currently pregnant, it will be probably difficult for you to find child care if you're not already on several wait lists," said Nicole Shea, president of the Greenville County Childcare Association.
There was never a mandate for South Carolina's 2,400 child care centers to close due to the coronavirus, but about half of them did anyway.
As of June 25, about 60% of them are open.
KidsZone, in Greenville, is one of them.
Ashley Riddle, co-director of KidsZone, said the center just opened two years ago as a “drop-in” alternative to traditional child care. Its long hours and lax commitment policies are a contrast to centers where parents must pay weekly or monthly tuition to keep their slots, which are often hard to find.
On March 20, they closed for about a month after a significant drop in attendance.
If they close again, Riddle is not sure they’ll ever re-open.
"If there is another shutdown, I don't think we would make it through," she said.
Last summer, the center had about 40 to 50 children a day. Now, it's averaging about half that many kids.
KidsZone isn't alone — Shea said many centers that stayed open during widespread closures in March said they were seeing about one-third of the children they normally have.
KidsZone was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan to avoid laying off employees, but not all child care workers were as fortunate.
Shea, who is president of the GCCA and also worked as an education specialist at Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, said she was laid off from the Sunshine House because of the financial strain of the pandemic.
The industry has long existed on thin profit margins and low-wage workers — most of a typical child care center’s revenue comes from tuition paid by parents.
For those who care for children aged two and younger, the margins are even thinner.
Derek Lewis, executive director of Greenville First Steps, said most centers end up losing money on infant care.
"The biggest shortage of child care in the country, and specifically in Greenville, is infant care," Lewis said. "The ratios make that really expensive, so to have five or six kids per adult, it's very difficult to staff in any affordable way. So most child care centers lose money on infant care, but they offer it because they hope the families will stay on for 3-year-old, 4-year-old care, which is more profitable."
South Carolina's DSS has expanded its voucher program to provide more funding to essential workers to help pay for child care during the pandemic. As of June 24, 18,965 children were on the voucher program, and nearly half of those children were because of coronavirus-related aid. About $33.2 million has been set aside so far for more than 7,300 children of essential workers.
The agency has also provided $5,000 to $15,000 grants to centers that have closed or have low attendance. A spokesperson for DSS said 1,634 child care providers, or 68% of centers in the state, had received the grants by June 23 totaling about $16.5 million. Some centers also received one-time cleaning grants, cleaning supplies and protective equipment.
'This is a crisis'
One estimate from the Center for Law and Social Policy says child care centers across the United States need an additional $9.6 billion per month to survive the pandemic.
Riddle said if schools close during the fall or if parents decide not to send their students back to school, child care centers could see an influx of children, but the centers will still have to abide by safety protocols from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Even if KidsZone does not end up closing again because of the pandemic, if attendance stays low for a significant period of time, Riddle said it will hurt their ability to stay open in the long-run.
“I don't think it's hyperbole to say this is a crisis," said Megan Carolyn, director of policy research at the Institute for Child Success.
Ariel Gilreath is a watchdog reporter focusing on education and family issues with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ArielGilreath.