Jessica Morris of Coweta, an eastern Oklahoma city of about 10,000, owns two child care facilities. She said she is struggling with the drop in attendance due to the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo provided)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Oklahoma, state officials urged child care centers to stay open.

The goal was to ensure child care would still be available to first responders and other essential personnel.

But as of this week, 734 child care centers have closed, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. And many more are struggling to make ends meet. The centers still open have dramatically fewer children, an advocacy group for the industry says.

“Typically, we tell parents you have to be here every day,” said Jessica Morris, who owns two child care facilities in Coweta. “We can’t do that right now. I’m not going to tell a parent who’s working from home they have to bring their child in.”

Morris is licensed for 116 children and was full, with a waiting list, before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and businesses. Attendance has dropped by two-thirds. Of the 80 children now staying home, Morris said, she’s receiving payment for only 20 of them.

“Gov. (Kevin) Stitt asked child care providers to stay open. We have stayed open, many of us. However, we are struggling financially.”

Katie Quebedeaux, board member, Licensed Child Care Association of Oklahoma

With the majority of parents now working from home, furloughed or unemployed, most children are staying home too, and have been since mid-March.

One of the biggest issues now is that providers don’t receive state subsidy payments for children who miss too many days. The Licensed Child Care Association of Oklahoma says the state needs to pay for those children anyway to help providers survive the crisis.

“Gov. (Kevin) Stitt asked child care providers to stay open. We have stayed open, many of us. However, we are struggling financially,” said Katie Quebedeaux, who serves on the association’s board.

There are about 3,000 child care centers and homes in Oklahoma. The number of centers has been declining for years, from 4,200 in 2012, a nearly 30% drop.

Other states are doing better in providing relief to child care facilities, the association said. The group surveyed providers in all 50 states and found that 41 states are now paying based on enrollment, regardless of whether the children show up.

Similarly, Kansas-based Alliance for Early Success found more than half of states plus the District of Columbia made policy changes to child care subsidies in response to COVID-19. At least 16 states are paying based on enrollment.

Quebedeaux said some states closed day care centers and are still paying for enrollment; others are paying an extra amount per child as a kind of hazard pay.

“A lot of states are really stepping up and showing that child care is important to them,” she said. Oklahoma tribes are also continuing to pay for enrolled children through subsidies.

Casey White, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said the agency understands the significant impact COVID-19 has had on child care providers. “Decisions made during this time are not easy decisions and they are not made lightly,” she said.

The agency has implemented several provider supports. Those are:

• An additional three absent days for March, for a total of 10, for children receiving a subsidy.

• Rate increases for programs rated 1 and 3 stars and programs for special-needs children. (Two-star programs got a large increase in 2018.)

• Rate adjustments for school-age children now that schools are closed for the year.  

The child care association says those do not go far enough. The decline in attendance started March 13 so most children were absent for more than 10 days. And they still would lose payments for April.

They are asking the state to pay for enrollment retroactively to March 15, the day Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a state of emergency. The funds should be there, they say, because the state already planned on spending at that level.

That would help tide them over until federal relief arrives from the CARES ACT, which allocated $3.5 billion in block grant assistance to child care providers, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.

Even that may not be enough. In a letter dated March 21, a half-dozen U.S. senators said the child care industry will need at least another $50 billion to be used, in part, to pay providers when they are closed so they can retain staff to eventually reopen.

“These investments are essential to mitigate the impact of the public health crisis now, but are also critically important for our eventual recovery,” they wrote. The letter is signed by U.S. Sens.  Tina Smith, Elizabeth Warren, Bob Casey, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Cory Booker.

A third of child care providers say they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without significant public investment, according to a survey of more than 6,000 providers in mid-March by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Jessica Morris

Among those in Oklahoma, 44% said they have lost income because they are paid by attendance rather than enrollment – the seventh highest of all states.

Like most child care providers, Morris, the Coweta day care owner, said her financial margins are razor thin.

“I would love to be able to close and say (to staff), ‘Go collect unemployment and we’ll pick back up.’ I don’t know that we could pick back up. I don’t think I could come out of it,” she said.

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