The Mills administration is making $73 million in grants available to child care providers in Maine to offer bonuses to staff members and to cover other costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 relief and stimulus package passed in March by the Democratic-controlled Congress contained nearly $24 billion in “child care stabilization grants” for distribution to states and tribal governments. The grants are aimed at helping to stabilize the industry at a time when many working parents are struggling to find child care because providers either closed during the pandemic or are limiting capacity because of staffing shortages.

As part of Maine’s grant program, child care providers who receive money must provide $200 monthly bonuses to staff members who work directly with children. Facilities also can use the funding to lower costs to families or to cover other qualifying COVID-related expenses, including facility improvements, virus testing, personal protective equipment and to replace lost revenue.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services said that as of Monday 58 percent of child care providers in the state – or 951 businesses – had applied for grants during this first round of funding. The application deadline for the current round is Sept. 30, although DHHS said the application process is rolling for future funding.

“Maine’s child care providers have been crucial to providing a safe place for kids to learn and grow while allowing their parents to go to work and contribute to our economic recovery,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “These American Rescue Plan grants will help child care providers tackle the hardships presented by the pandemic, including staffing and lost revenue, and enable us to build a stronger, more sustainable and affordable child care system in our state – something that is vital as we strengthen our economy.”

The $73 million is part $127 million that Maine expected to receive for child care programs through the American Rescue Plan Act, as well as enhanced block grant funding. Additionally, more than 450 child care-related businesses received forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, with an average loan of $45,767.

While the pandemic impacted every corner of Maine’s economy, child care providers were hit by a combination of factors.

As workplaces closed or required employees to work remotely, many parents chose to keep their children at home, particularly if they also had school-aged children learning virtually. As a result, many child care providers saw a dramatic drop in revenue. Home-based child care programs or larger centers that did stay open faced higher costs for personal protective equipment and cleaning. And the pandemic made finding new staff – already a major challenge because of the low pay – even more difficult.

More than 170 child care facilities closed in Maine between March 2020 and June 2021. While 111 licensed child care programs opened during that 16-month period, the net loss of total programs was compounded by reduced capacity at many remaining programs because of staffing shortages, social distancing requirements and other factors.

The result has been fewer slots – and longer wait lists – for many parents who needed child care.

The Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional organization also involved in policy discussions in Augusta, surveyed small and large child care providers during the early months of the pandemic. The survey found that larger child care centers were losing about $50,000 a month while smaller, home-based programs estimated their losses at around $7,000 a month.

GRANTS PROVIDE STABILITY

Tara Williams, executive director the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, said the stabilization grants are “at the core of securing our child care sector in Maine.” While many child care providers were able to take advantage of other COVID-19 relief programs, those grants typically only covered a portion of the losses.

The stabilization grants, Williams said, will not only help provide a pay boost to employees but will allow some programs to pay off debts or cover other losses incurred as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, because the grants will be doled out as monthly stipends, they will help provide some stability for the next year, she said.

“This childcare stabilization package is getting to the level of relief that people in the sector have been telling us for a year that they need to survive,” Williams said.

Deborah Arcaro of Gorham, a licensed child care provider for 33 years who serves as chair of the Family Child Care Association of Maine, said child care providers “really stepped up to the plate when COVID hit” to help support their families. Some took out loans to stay open for families that still needed them, while others found other ways to keep their doors open, even if it meant shorter hours.

Arcaro, who retired and closed her Country Fun Child Care in July, credited the Mills administration and the industry for working together to create a “whole-system” approach that provides flexible options for using the federal funding. For some, it might mean paying off debts, while other programs might use the funding to provide health insurance for employees.

She also hopes that the pandemic helped illuminate some of the longstanding challenges in the industry, such as pay often hovering just above minimum wage despite the critical role that child care providers play in the lives of working families.

“It’s the workforce that supports the workforce in this state,” Arcaro said. “Without child care, the entire economy in the state of Maine is going to crash. So COVID brought that to a clearer picture for a lot of people.”

THINKING AHEAD

Former teacher Hollie McLachlan experienced the staffing and compensation crisis firsthand during the lead-up to opening Chickadee Infant and Toddler Care in South Portland last month.

McLachlan said hardly anybody applied for jobs when they were advertising at the going rate of $13.50 to $14.50 an hour. While they were eventually able to hire enough staff to care for the 50 children they were licensed to accept, McLachlan said they’ve already had turnover because some people didn’t have the skills or experience with kids that was needed.

Chickadee Infant and Toddler Care was able to attract a larger pool of well-qualified candidates by offering higher hourly wages, but that also meant bumping up tuition rates. The $200-per-month bonus will boost pay by about $1 an hour, but the money “is temporary and we really need a permanent solution,” McLachlan said.

“It is helpful to have this grant coming down the pike,” she said. “But it is also somewhat anxiety-inducing because many of us are wondering what will happen in 12 months when this goes away.”

Instead, she hopes that the pandemic sparked discussion of and interest in long-term solutions. McLachlan said it is a mystery to her why governments do not invest more in early childhood education just like they invest in K-12 education considering how important those early years are in a child’s development.

“Now that we are here and have experienced what this crisis can look like for families and for babies, I’m hoping the conversation about investment in early education as infrastructure will take off in a positive direction,” McLachlan said.


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