Throughout the pandemic, childcare and early education centers like FRIENDS Association for Children have stayed open to continue caring for the children of essential workers, first responders, and other families who depend on this important service during the day.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know how this situation was going to impact us as an organization, but we did know these circumstances would have a tremendously negative impact on the families and children we serve,” said J. David Young, Executive Director of FRIENDS.
This feat has not been without its challenges. Centers could only operate at 50% capacity through the spring and summer months due to social distancing guidelines, leading to lost revenue in an industry already known for razor-thin margins. At the same time, they have not had access to their usual crews of volunteers to help, and they have new costs for cleaning supplies and PPE to consider.
“Even with restrictions decreasing our enrollment from over 220 children a day to about 70, we made a conscious decision to do everything possible to remain open at a time when our families needed us the most—despite the difficulty of only being able to plan two to three months at a time,” Young said.
A System-Wide Issue
FRIENDS was not alone in this struggle. According to a survey conducted by ChildSavers in July, 71 percent of childcare providers across the region worried their businesses may close by December without additional financial assistance.
“Our childcare system has been operating on a broken business model for decades, and this current situation has really put a spotlight on just how fragile and under-resourced this system is,” said Rich Schultz, Executive Director of Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond, our region’s early childhood education coalition and an affiliate of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF).
Supports and Solutions
To find the best ways to support childcare providers through this crisis, Smart Beginnings assembled a Richmond Region Emergency Childcare Taskforce, which has been meeting weekly since March. They also put together a regular newsletter to connect providers with online resources and official guidance from health organizations, and they’ve conducted supply drives to distribute cleaning supplies and protective masks to over 200 providers so far.
On the state level, VECF has convened the cross-sector Back to Work Virginia Taskforce, charged with crafting a strategic plan for structural shifts and policy changes that will stabilize Virginia’s childcare industry. This taskforce is preparing to deliver its recommendations in November, elaborating on the roles that business, philanthropy, the public sector and the community must play to ensure a sustainable childcare industry going forward.
“What we’re seeing is that we need more public funding across the local, state and federal levels,” Schultz said. “That’s what makes this advocacy work so important. Without stabilization, a lot of these businesses are really teetering on closure.”
Philanthropic & Community Support Now
In the face of all these challenges, FRIENDS has continued to innovate in order to keep their staff and children safe and cared for. “We realized that we can help by making sure that families have a safe place for their children while they work,” Young added. “In addition to maintaining our preschool classrooms, the unused meeting spaces at our centers were modified into 'Virtual Learning Centers.' We created a daily schedule aligned with the school schedule, increased our internet bandwidth, and obtained school-age size desks and chairs to accommodate these young learners.”
“Our volunteers are getting creative as well," Young added. "Some are making videos leading arts and craft activities, some read to our children via Zoom, and others serve as virtual Math and Reading Buddies. Due to safety precautions, we have had to reduce transportation services—and with fewer children to transport, our transportation staff pick up staff members who would have ordinarily used public transportation, thereby reducing possible exposure to COVID.”
As individual donors have stepped up their contributions and funders have started unrestricting grants so dollars can be used wherever they’re most needed, FRIENDS has been able to start planning a little further into the future. For now, Young feels confident about getting through the end of this fiscal year and is looking at funding and resources for FY21. “I can’t say thank you enough to this community,” Young said. “Everyone has been incredible with helping us stay afloat.”