After an extended closure, Ohio's child care centers got a green light to reopen. But new rules have limited available spots, which poses challenges for parents who need care and providers trying to balance their budgets.

Update: The state of Ohio is allowing day care providers to return to their full licensed capacities as of Aug. 11, 2020, if they so choose. That decision came after this story was published in our Summer issue. 

Courtney Lewis spent 10 months transforming the historic former Southwick-Good & Fortkamp Funeral Chapel in Clintonville into a child care center. The neighborhood was thrilled that the structure, part of which dates to the 1830s, would be renovated rather than torn down. 

But just over two months after Lewis opened the doors of Balanced Family Academy Clintonville on Jan. 2, she was forced to shut down, along with more than 1,000 other Central Ohio child care providers, because of Covid-19. “There’s no playbook for this,” says Lewis. She’d planned for disruptions like power outages or a foot of snow, but not a pandemic. 

When it closed in March in response to a state order, the center, 3100 N. High St., had 120 students in eight classrooms who enjoyed a shared multipurpose room and regular visits from a yoga instructor, a music teacher and a group that set up obstacle courses.

When it reopened to all students June 1, enrollment had shrunk to 81 students, the multipurpose room and the teacher break room had been transformed into additional classrooms, the enrichment activities had been cancelled and class sizes had been cut dramatically to conform to new state rules. Instead of 24 to 28 older children and 12 to 15 younger children per classroom, the center had to abide by the state maximum of nine older children and six younger children per room. And rather than team teaching, each teacher was assigned to one classroom to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

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Balanced Family is luckier than many facilities because it has enough space to create additional classrooms as more students return throughout the summer. Lewis expects 35 more students in July and said she’ll probably put up temporary walls in larger spaces to create more classrooms. 

Misti Norman, executive director and owner of the Heavenly Kids Center for Learning at 404 E. Mound St. in Downtown Columbus, was able to meet the new students-per-room guidelines by using classrooms normally reserved for summer camp for school-age children. But that meant she can’t hold summer camp, which normally provided care for 28 families as well as additional income. 

Heavenly Kids enrollment has dropped from about 140 children to 70 because of the new rules. When it reopened June 1, the center had to turn away 15 children it couldn’t accommodate, Norman says. “My heart goes out to centers that are smaller and can’t make accommodations,” she says. 

But even though she’s been flexible, Norman isn’t optimistic about the future. “We’ve reduced our revenue and increased our expenses,” she says, noting that the number of teachers the center needs has stayed essentially the same while the tuition revenue has been cut in half. Cleaning expenses and the cost of masks for the staff and other equipment also have inflated costs. 

“The numbers are not adding up as far as meeting the expenses,” she says. Norman has received some additional funding through the state, which kept her mortgage and utilities paid during the shutdown. She plans to apply for additional government grants that recently became available. “But the issue is, it still wouldn’t be enough money based on the cut we had to take,” she says. “It’s definitely not going to make us whole.”

Norman also can’t recoup her costs through tuition, because 80 percent of her students receive funding from the state. Balanced Family, on the other hand, has no publicly subsidized students and charged partial tuition during some of the shutdown. 

No Easy Decisions

Eric Karolak, CEO of Action for Children, a child care resource and referral agency, says the state-mandated reduction in the number of students per classroom isn’t sustainable for many providers. He says a few centers in Central Ohio have permanently closed as a result of the shutdown, and some remained temporarily closed in mid-June. But he says data shows that a high percentage will eventually reopen.

He’s hearing two things from centers that have reopened. “One, the revenue they have coming in isn’t covering their costs, and two, the staff feels good about being back and the children are delighted to see caregivers they’ve missed for weeks.”

During the closure, about a third of the area’s child care centers operated under a special pandemic license, which allowed them to care for children of essential workers. Heavenly Kids was not open for business. But Balanced Family was for the last two weeks in May, which allowed the center to ease into new state regulations and work out snags before all students could return. That’s when Michelle Taylor and her wife, Kate Taylor, of Clintonville sent daughters Hazel, 2, and Tegan, 7 months, back to Balanced Family. 

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Michelle, an IT worker at Ohio State University. She and Kate, a coordinator for the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, found it nearly impossible to both work eight-hour days and also take care of an infant and a toddler. “Being at home actually was a welcome change in a not-so-great time, and it was fun,” says Michelle. “We had a lot of conversations about it, weighing the pros and cons.” 

But when Hazel started repeating her parents’ frequent announcement that “I have a work call; I have to take this work call,” they decided their children needed more. After checking with their pediatrician, the couple decided that Hazel, especially, needed the structure and routine that child care provided. 

The family had socially distanced themselves completely, so the decision the return to child care was a leap of faith. Michelle says she wouldn’t have made it if she hadn’t had faith in her center. “We’ve seen them take this seriously,” she says. “I trust that they’re making the best decisions for the kids.” 

Leeann Bechtel of the West Side was in the middle of searching for child care for granddaughter Amelia, who’s almost 2, when the pandemic hit. In mid-June, she renewed her search and hopes to find a provider who cares for children in their home. 

Bechtel, who works two jobs, has been relying on family members to care for Amelia, who is in her custody, in the interim. “I’ve been afraid to take her out,” she says. “If I could, I’d stay home with her.” She worries about taking Amelia to child care anywhere, but feels an in-home provider would be safer because the toddler would be exposed to fewer people.

Karolak says the pandemic has brought into sharper focus how necessary child care is to the economy. He hopes that people will look back on 2020 and know that it was the year the nation began to work for more available and equitable child care. 

“You can’t have families in the workforce without adequate child care,” he says. “It’s now a question of, ‘Can we imagine a better way to do this? And do we have the will to do that?’ The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to folks understanding differently how child care is essential.”

This story is from the Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.