Expert: Pandemic exposed ‘child care dilemma’ in Dayton region, nationally

The COVID-19 pandemic altered the child care industry across the country and the Dayton region, as many were forced to shut their doors because of higher operating costs and fewer paying customers.

Richard Darner of Bellbrook Rentals LLC, who was operating a daycare center prior to the pandemic, had a similar experience. He was forced to pivot when fewer children were showing up, and he’s looking to turn the facility into an event center.

“We realized we needed to do something,” he said.

The child care industry has been grappling with the “child care dilemma” for years and many centers managed to remain afloat until the pandemic exposed the problem, said Shauna Adams, executive director of the Center for Early Learning and a professor of early childhood education at the University of Dayton. About half of child care centers nationwide are predicted to close permanently because of this perfect COVID storm, she said.

“This has become more evident during the pandemic because it is very different,” Adams said. “Children can’t be immunized, they don’t wear masks, and they don’t stay socially distant. So you’re going to have more of a risk of being exposed to COVID. While we’ve not had huge outbreaks in child care, there is more risk to staff.”

Even the Bombeck Family Learning Center day care at UD is having issues, despite the fact it is university affiliated with health benefits and tuition remission for employees and their kids, she said.

“This pandemic has made it difficult for child care centers who rely on tuition dollars to keep open from month to month,” Adams said.

Due to COVID, many daycares have had to cut their class sizes in order to follow health guidelines, which can be an expensive burden on centers.

“Among our heroes are our childcare workers, our early childhood educators, because they go to work every day knowing that children don’t wear masks, they often are asymptomatic, and they don’t social distance. And so the extra work that they have to put in to keep kids safe and the extra risk that they put on themselves because they love their job, truly makes them heroes,” Adams said.

Another factor that is causing issues is that child care workers are underpaid, though the work they do is hard and many love their jobs. Most early childhood educators go to college and so they should be paid what they are worth, Adams said.

“I mean, they can go across the street to Burger King and get paid more, even though they love their work,” she said.

Adams said it is also difficult for many parents to afford quality child care. Child care centers can charge an average of about $250 for an infant and $300 for an older child per week.

Parents may also be afraid or feel guilty to send their children back to daycare because of the coronavirus, she said. Adams said the U.S. is one of the first world countries that doesn’t have federally subsidized child care. It would take a bipartisan effort to improve the “child care dilemma,” she said.

Darner was operating a daycare at 784 Bellbrook Avenue in Xenia before the pandemic. He is now hoping to rezone the space so that he can run an event center. He currently has a temporary permit for holding events.

Yellow walls dotted with the ABCs, clouds, hot air balloons and nursery rhymes have been covered up with muted blue tones. Toys cleared out and tables set up. Play areas have been converted for a different sort of play.

Darner and his family ran Tiny Tot Academy for about 15 years. His daughter, Missy Darner, managed the daycare.

Before the pandemic, the daycare averaged about 70 to 100 children per day, ranging in age from 6 weeks to 12-years-old. After the pandemic there were about 20 kids who returned daily. Darner said around Thanksgiving the business wasn’t recovering the way they had hoped. The Payroll Protection Program loans helped keep the doors open, he said.

The idea for Bellbrook Event Center stemmed from the need to keep the doors open and the lights on, he said.

With the temporary permit, the event center has had 11 events so far, from weddings to bridal showers to birthday parties. The event center is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The event center also rents table cloths, tables of varying sizes and creates custom centerpieces for events.

Darner said he thinks the pandemic forcing in-person events to be canceled or pushed back may help this new business venture. Pivoting to an event center has helped Darner keep his daughter, and a few others, employed.

Other businesses have also suffered and been forced to pivot like Darner’s. Restaurants have started to offer grocery services, hotels have started to offer day rates for people working from home and retailers have pivoted to curbside pick up to remain relevant.

“I think every industry was hit in their own way, childcare was certainly no exception, said Natalie Corral, director of marketing and social media for Mini University. “We had to make a lot of changes and make decisions and adapt really quickly, and find the best way to sort of survive as a business and still serve as many families as possible.”

Mini University has daycare centers affiliated with Miami University, Sinclair, Wright State, Miami Valley Hospital and the Montgomery County Administration building. Corral said capacity in all Mini University centers was cut nearly in half, it has since returned to normal. The child care centers have also started doing daily health screenings and have limited the people who can come into the buildings. When the daycare was closed, teachers sent home activities with families and kept in touch with those who had been enrolled pre-pandemic.

Mini University’s enrollment is down a bit from where they were pre-pandemic.

“It was definitely a struggle initially when we re-opened last summer after the governor had us closed for a few months, but we’re seeing a bit of a surge now with good enrollment for the summer and by this fall it’s looking like we might be back into full swing,” Corral said.

A few of the centers will likely have full houses this summer, Corral said. Many college campuses like Wright State and Sinclair will be back on campus this fall, so Corral said families are contacting them about fall enrollment. Corral said enrollment is down about 50% at daycares nationwide.

Corral said because children are parents’ “most precious thing,” many may feel comfortable returning to work or to other parts of life, but still feel anxiety over bringing their child back to day care.

Corral said many child care centers seem to be recovering as summer nears and schools will be out of session.

“It’s really been interesting how everybody has kind of rallied around all of these adaptations and changes that we’ve had to make. It hasn’t been easy for the families and the children,” Corral said. “It’s been a difficult time but it’s been really kind of moving to see how everybody’s still just willing to do whatever they need to do in order to keep everybody safe.”

As for Darner and his family’s business, he doesn’t know yet if this new business is going to change things.

“It’s working out real well now, but time will tell,” he said.

Darner’s event space consists of a main gathering area with a side room and kitchen access. Later on, the event center plans to also offer an option to rent a room adjacent to the playground on the property. The event center sits on five acres of land, so there is also space to hold outdoor weddings and other events, Darner said.

The main gathering space can hold about 100 people comfortably.

The property is located between two industrially zoned properties, one of which is vacant land and the other of which is occupied by Treality, a visual simulation system supplier. To the north is a cemetery and the Bridges of Hope homeless shelter. There is a subdivision to the south of this property. On May 6, the planning and zoning commission voted to recommend approval of this rezoning to city council. Xenia City Council introduced the rezoning legislation at their May 13 meeting.

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