Virus has pummeled New Mexico’s child care industry

By Dillon Mullan May 3, 2020

Joan Shankin stopped by her small preschool Friday morning to feed the fish and disinfect the play mats.

Typically, Children’s Garden Montessori School enrolls about 50 kids ages 18 months to 5 years. Shankin, who started the nonprofit early childhood center 14 years ago and serves as its director, said in all of April, it cared for just one child for three days.

Starting Monday, however, five or six children of workers in industries considered essential during the COVID-19 pandemic will be attending the school.

“Some parents who are essential workers called and said the situation is more than they can manage, so they need support,” Shankin said.

Parents were told their children must stay home if they are showing any symptoms of sickness, and Shankin will take the temperature of each child on arrival, at lunchtime and when they leave for the day. Fever is one of the first signs of COVID-19, a viral respiratory illness.

“We’re going to take temperatures and clean everything and hope for the best,” Shankin said. “I just hope none of these kids come to school with the virus.”

Since cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, began emerging in New Mexico in mid-March, child care centers and preschools across the state have seen a massive drop in demand. The governor’s public health order requiring schools and many businesses to close and urging residents to remain at home as much as possible put tens of thousands of workers out of jobs and led to thousands more working remotely from their homes.

Even parents who continue working in essential services have kept their kids at home to help keep them safe from the virus.

Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said around 400 child care centers in New Mexico have closed their doors in recent weeks. Some 500 that have stayed open are serving only 15 percent to 30 percent of the children they normally would enroll.

United Way of Santa Fe County, which provides prekindergarten programs for about 100 3- and 4-year-olds, is one of many organizations that have closed their child care campuses in Santa Fe. In late March, United Way saw a surge in demand as other pre-Ks shut down. It announced it was opening additional slots for the children of health care workers and first responders under a state initiative expanding tuition-free pre-K during the pandemic.

But demand then plummeted until there were too few children attending United Way’s Early Learning Center at Kaune to keep it open, Executive Director Katherine Freeman said.

“When we first opened up these slots, there was lots of demand. We had a waiting list,” Freeman said. “Then people starting losing their jobs and getting laid off. We helped some parents pursue other options, and that demand diminished.”

Jennifer Salinas, director of early learning at United Way, said just under half the Kaune center’s students have continued learning from home through online platforms.

Other pre-K centers in the city, such as Santa Fe Community College’s Kids Campus, also have been reaching children through distance-learning programs.

It hasn’t been easy, Salinas said.

“The biggest struggle is just families having time and energy to do it,” she said, “especially those with older children in the public schools who are required to keep up with online learning. “Our stuff gets put on the back burner.”

Despite the recent struggles for day care and pre-K providers, many have been able to keep workers on the payroll even while centers are shut down.

Some providers have received forgivable loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, an economic stimulus initiative to aid businesses and workers during the pandemic.

The state government also has continued reimbursing providers that serve low-income families who receive government-funded child care assistance, even if those kids are not on campus.

“We have continued to pay contracts for children regardless if a center is closed,” Groginsky said. “We’re paying based on enrollment, not attendance.”

On Friday, the state announced it also would use some of its federal pandemic-related stimulus funding to begin offering hazard pay to child care workers who are serving children of essential employees — many of whom are on the front lines of the pandemic and at high risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. Full-time early childhood workers will be eligible for $700 per month for each month they have worked between April and June, the state said, while part-time workers will be eligible for $350 per month.

An additional $12 million in grants will be available for licensed child care providers who have been affected by the public health crisis, the state said.

Shankin said Children’s Garden Montessori, which receives half its revenue from privately paid tuition and half from state reimbursements, has been able to continue paying all six of its full-time teachers.

State Rep. Rebecca Dow, a Truth or Consequences Republican who founded the preschool AppleTree Educational Center more than 20 years ago, said child care workers, some of the lowest-paid employees in the state, deserve a boost.

“It’s clearly an essential service,” Dow said. “Right now, we’re serving truckers, grocery store employees, Walmart and gas station workers, and, of course, health care workers from our veterans center and nursing home.”

She noted the average child care worker in New Mexico earns $11.80 per hour, less than the city of Santa Fe’s minimum wage of $12.10.

“We need to raise pay for the long-term sustainability of our child care system,” Dow said.

Groginsky said raising pay for the early childhood workforce is one of her primary goals for the new department.