Across the country, schools and daycares are closed to help slow the spread of the COVID-19. John Moore/Getty Images
Parenting in a Pandemic

Do parents still pay when daycare is closed for weeks, or months, because of COVID-19?

Samantha Fields Mar 30, 2020
Across the country, schools and daycares are closed to help slow the spread of the COVID-19. John Moore/Getty Images

Lauren Gard posed the question to her friends on Facebook soon after her son’s daycare closed because of coronavirus. 

Would they keep paying for services — especially daycare, or preschool — they wouldn’t be able to use for the foreseeable future?

It’s a question a lot of parents with young kids are asking themselves and each other right now. Do they have an obligation — legally, but also ethically — to keep paying for daycare when it’s closed?

“I feel like it’s one of so many ethical questions around money that has come up for me,” said Gard, a single mom in suburban Philadelphia whose son, Julian, is 4. “His daycare bills in three installments, and I just got the bill for the third installment. And he’s not going to be in school, I’m quite confident, but those teachers need to be paid.”

Because of that, she feels compelled to keep paying, even if she’s not able to send her son to daycare. At least for now, while the small public relations agency she co-runs still feels solid, and she can afford it. Which was the general consensus when she posted on Facebook, too.

“People said basically that if they can afford to pay, if their financial situation hasn’t been impacted, then they will pay,” Gard said. “But people also were very clear, you have to cover your mortgage first and foremost, and your own health insurance. And we all have to try to take care of each other when we can, but at the end of the day, if you’re not getting these services, then it’s ethically OK not to pay for them.”

Legally, it may come down to each daycare’s contract with parents. Parents cannot be required to pay while a daycare is closed unless the contract specifically addresses extended closures due to a pandemic or a public health emergency, at least in California, according to the Child Care Law Center. But laws can vary by city and state, and there’s a lot of uncertainty and confusion right now among parents and daycare providers alike. 

With daycare and elementary school both closed indefinitely, Allyson Criner Brown’s 2-year-old and 6-year-old daughters are both now home all day every day. (Courtesy Allyson Criner Brown)

That is why Allyson Criner Brown, who has two young daughters, wants officials in her city, Washington D.C., to issue some guidance to parents and providers, and soon. 

“Otherwise,” she said, “it’s definitely going to feel like the Wild West within a couple of weeks as far as who’s paying for daycare, where, how much are people paying, who is paying versus who is not paying. And these aren’t decisions that individual parents should have to make themselves, or that the daycare should have to figure out.” 

That is exactly what’s happening in many places at the moment. Parents don’t know what’s going on or what’s expected of them — in part, because daycare providers don’t know, either. 

Ana Andrade had to close her home daycare, The Wolf Pack Family Child Care, in San Rafael, California, in mid-March, when the county she lives in became one of the first to issue a three-week shelter-in-place order.  

“We’re closed until further notice. I mean, initially until April 7,” she said, “but everything is changing every day. “

Just on Sunday, President Donald Trump said federal social distancing guidelines will now remain in place until at least April 30, and possibly longer.

Because of the uncertainty, Andrade hasn’t yet figured out what to tell parents about reopening or about payment. She did not have anything in her contract about a public health emergency.

“For now, to the end of March, they agreed that they would pay, but after that I really don’t know which families are going to come back,” said Andrade, who’s been a daycare provider for 26 years. “I don’t know if the governor is going to extend the shelter-in-place, how this is gonna go, I really don’t.” 

She also doesn’t know how long she can keep her business alive if she has to remain closed for an extended period. The same is true of many child care providers across the country. A recent survey found that nearly a third of providers, both in-home and center-based, said they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without some kind of financial support. And while daycares and preschools almost across the board operate on razor-thin margins, home-based providers are particularly vulnerable. Many, including Andrade, live paycheck-to-paycheck. They also do not qualify for unemployment.

“It’s a pretty fragilely supported system to start with,” said Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center. “If your question is, what’s the long-term effect going to be? There’s no way to stress enough that child care programs will have to close permanently. There will not be child care for our communities when things return to normal, when families go back to work.”

That is something Criner Brown is worried about. She wants her almost 2-year-old daughter, Zora, when all this is over, to be able to go back to the same daycare, to the same faces she knows and loves. Especially after weeks or months of 24/7 access to her parents and sister.

“She doesn’t just go to anyone, she’s still in the stranger danger phase. So we’d like for her to go back to the familiar faces, because it takes time, for toddlers especially, to build that trust with their caretakers,” Criner Brown said. “We want the daycares to stay, we care if they close down … that’s where our families have relationships with the staff, and that’s where our kids have a relationship.”

Which is why it was so tough for her and her husband to make the decision last week to pull Zora out of daycare. Formally unenroll her, at least for now. 

“It’s not an easy call to make,” said Allyson Criner Brown, who last week decided to formally pull her 2-year-old daughter out of daycare. “At the same time, we have two kids to feed and to be taken care of, and we have a mortgage. And we just don’t know what the future will hold.” (Courtesy Allyson Criner Brown)

“We just can’t take the risk that we make all of these payments and then we’re not able to get them back for not having our child go to daycare,” said Criner Brown, who had not yet heard anything from Zora’s daycare about whether they’d expect families to keep paying while they’re closed. “We’re not in a position to get months into this and then they say we need to do all these back payments if you want to come back to the daycare.”

Criner Brown is worried about her own job and her family’s finances right now. She’s still working — as much as she can with a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old at home — but the education and social justice non-profit she works for, which does programming with local schools, has already talked about the possibility of layoffs.

Still, even though it feels like a smart decision, a financially-necessary decision amidst so much turmoil and economic uncertainty, “it’s not an easy call to make,” Criner Brown said. “At the same time, we have two kids to feed and to be taken care of, and we have a mortgage. And we just don’t know what the future will hold … at the end of the day, we’re responsible for our children and we have to make the decision that’s best for our family.”

That, ultimately, is what it will come down to for most families – what they can afford. Daycare, even in good times, is a stretch for many, often costing nearly as much or more than rent or a mortgage.

“The vast majority of parents look first, as probably well they should, at their contractual obligations and financial bottom line,” said Kruckel, of the Child Care Law Center. “In the upper middle-class professional classes, no problem, people will pay if they at all can. At least for a month. But I understand that, for your average wage worker, that would just not seem to be where you’d want to spend your last $800 bucks.”

Or more. Families in many parts of the country, particularly those with multiple children, sometimes pay upwards of $3,000 a month for child care.

Which is why Kruckel and other advocates are calling for more support and relief for child care providers, and for changes in the law to allow them to qualify for unemployment. The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package did include several billion in emergency funding for states to spend on child care – primarily on subsidies to child care centers that serve low-income children, and on care for the children of essential workers – but the Center for Law and Social Policy called the funding “insufficient given the scope of the crisis.”

As things stand now, daycare providers like Andrade are in a tough position — on precarious financial ground, unsure how much to ask of families that may be, too.

For now, Andrade is in a holding pattern. Waiting to see if California’s shelter-in-place order is extended, waiting to see how long daycares will have to be closed. It’s hard to make a plan, to tell other people what the plan is, when she doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. But with April almost here, she’s considering asking families to continue paying at least something. Not requiring, but asking.

“Either come up with a payment plan, or maybe give them a 50% discount,” she said. “So that I can stay afloat. So that I can eventually open again.”

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