Day cares are reopening. But they can only serve small groups and fear for their survival.

The industry already operates at the margins, and facilities that are open are running undercapacity to comply with strict health guidelines. Many centers have delayed paying their rent or mortgages until they can afford it. Owners say that many workers have left for babysitting gigs or other minimum-wage jobs that reopened sooner.

The demand for child care is growing but is inconsistent and unpredictable, day-care owners said in interviews. They have fewer young infants in their care. But centers with accredited prekindergarten programs say the slots are in high demand, with parents opting for these in-person programs instead of the virtual public school ones. While some centers are turning parents away, others have capacity but no families registered.

And now a new challenge for some day cares: The District announced this month that it would change the way it pays them subsidies — money the city pays directly to day-care operators to cover the tuition costs for qualifying, low-income families. Since the city declared a public health emergency, it has paid subsidies to day cares for all eligible children enrolled before the pandemic, even if the centers are closed. But beginning Nov. 1, day cares will only receive funds for children in attendance.

It’s a move that would probably push more day cares to reopen. But it would also hurt day-care centers that are not open or are having to reduce capacity to adhere to the city’s health guidelines and have relied on subsidy funds to make up the difference.

“We are viewed so low on the totem pole,” said Cynthia Davis, owner of the home-based Kings And Queens Child Care and president of the D.C. Family Child Care Association.

Davis has had to defer her mortgage payments during the pandemic and has had just one consistent client — a 10-year-old who she watches overnight while her mother works a security shift. She is expecting two more children to return soon.

“It’s hard to stay afloat,” she said.

Last year, the District spent $115 million on child-care subsidies for more than 8,000 children. About half of the city’s day cares enroll children who receive subsidies, which means the rest have relied on the tuition fees or donations of paying parents during the pandemic. Day cares are private businesses and some received Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Hanseul Kang, state superintendent of education, said no one expected the public health emergency to last this long. Paying subsidies based on pre-pandemic enrollment was always meant to be a short-term plan. Maryland switched to paying subsidies based on attendance in July — a move that Kang said resulted in more child-care facilities reopening there.

By paying subsidies based on attendance, day cares will have an incentive to enroll children who are not on their rosters and need a slot.

Kang said the District budgeted $115 million again on the child-care sector this fiscal year and will spend any of those allocated funds not used for subsidies in the sector.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced this month that she would allocate an additional $5 million in relief to day-care operators. The city is operating emergency day cares and has a hotline that parents can call to connect them with open child-care slots.

“We know that the needs of our families are shifting and that is the main impetus of our switch,” said Kang, whose agency oversees the child-care sector. “We are trying to evolve our supports to be the most impactful for our providers, but we recognize the challenges of it as well.” 

Child-care center owners say the change in subsidy payments will help some facilities and hurt others.

Jubilee Jumpstart in Adams Morgan is operating at about half-capacity this fall. Sixty-five percent of its children received subsidies before the pandemic, according to Barbra Brooks-Gumes, the center’s director of program operations. But since March, many affluent families have found nannies or left the city as they work remotely. She said some of her clients — including at least two parents who work at hotels — are still furloughed and do not need day-care slots.

Brooks-Gumes said she expects around 85 percent of her families to receive subsidies this academic year. The change in subsidy payments will allow Jubilee Jumpstart to enroll these children and receive money for them in November.

But Tameenah Adams, chief executive of Happy Faces Early Learning Center in Northeast Washington, said she expects to lose 25 percent of her revenue because of the change in subsidy payments. She typically has a capacity of 141 students at any time, with 90 percent of them qualifying for subsidies. But under the city’s health guidelines, day cares can only have 10 people per room, or eight children and two adults.

So she has a capacity of 64 students, although she is constructing room dividers to increase capacity to 88 children.

Since March, she has received payments for the more than 120 children receiving subsidies she enrolled before the pandemic, but beginning Nov. 1, she will only receive payments for the children who regularly attend. She said more families are beginning to return to work and she is turning them away because she is at capacity. Adams said that the families she cannot serve rely on “patchwork” child care, which means they are finding a different friend or relative each day to watch their children. She worries this could mean greater exposure to the virus for the children and their relatives.

Adams said she never closed Happy Faces and has never had a virus outbreak. She believes she can operate with more children and points to Maryland, which caps day-care classrooms at 15 people.

The city is tracking outbreaks in day cares but is not making the data public, according to the D.C. Department of Health.

“If they are going to make the subsidies based on attendance, then the Department of Health needs to increase capacity size,” Adams said. “The same way that the government is opening up businesses in phases, where is Phase 2 for child care? We’re still operating like it’s Phase 1.”

Stephanie Bonilla’s experience with child care illustrates just how tough the closures have been on working parents.

Bonilla’s 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, has a slot at a well-regarded child-care center with a waiting list in Columbia Heights. Bonilla, who teaches kindergartners at a different early child-care center in the city, qualifies for subsidies and paid $300 a month before the pandemic for tuition while the city covered the rest.

In the beginning, Bonilla was working from home and could care for Isabella. When Isabella’s day care reopened in July, Bonilla sent her back. But the day care had a few scares with the virus and is expected to remain closed until the end of the calender year. Now, Bonilla is back to teaching in person, and Isabella’s father also reports to work each day. So they hired a babysitter for $1,000 a month, which is exhausting their savings.

Bonilla found a home day care that will take Isabella, but it lacks the advanced preschool curriculum her other day care offers, and she worries Isabella will fall behind. So she is still deciding what to do.

“I have been dipping into my savings and that is dwindling fast,” Bonilla said. “I am angry, I feel I’m stuck. . . . They need to open up.”

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