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As Tampa Bay goes back to work, child care may be in short supply

There’s a looming “catastrophic shortage" of options as child care centers deal with size limitations and increased costs. Many may never reopen.

As parents head back to work amid Florida’s reopening, they will likely find a child care industry in crisis, according to advocates for early learning and preschool providers.

Some 58 percent of the child care centers in Pinellas County remain closed at the moment because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said a report from the Pinellas Office of Early Learning. And some of them may never reopen.

In addition, other options like summer camps have also been vastly cut back or canceled this year across the Tampa Bay area.

Related: Many summer camps canceled this year, others to open with major changes

When coronavirus concerns started closing down businesses in mid-March, child care centers initially struggled with low enrollments, delayed cash flow and staffing shortages, said Lindsay Carson, the CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County.

Now, providers for young children — from infants to preschool ages in particular — are contending with lost revenue due to group size limitations and added cleaning costs based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.

“I am not advocating that we relax these standards, we must continue to put the health and safety of our children first,” Carson said in an email to Pinellas County commissioners. “However, I fear that we are potentially weeks away from a catastrophic shortage of capacity in child care in Pinellas County.”

On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all restrictions on youth activities and summer camps, but that only applies to school-aged children. Young child care providers still must limit their group size to more than half their previous limit and maintain tough hygiene standards.

Related: Governor lifts all restrictions on youth activities and summer camps

The Pinellas Early Learning Center is currently conducting a study to evaluate the supply and demand for child care in the area, and it doesn’t look good. The results of this study, along with suggested solutions, will be presented at the next ELC meeting on May 28. Local legislators have been invited to join them for the talk, which will be held as a Zoom meeting.

Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she was alarmed by what she is seeing in the child care field.

“It’s a really big issue that no one is talking about,” Peters said. “We are going to have to come up with solutions, because child care is essential for people to go back to work.”

Four local child care options have already closed for good, Carson said, including the Mount Zion Children’s Center in St. Petersburg and the SonLight Learning Center in Safety Harbor, plus two in-home day care options.

“It’s a business that is expensive for a family to use it, but it has a very narrow profit margin,” Carson said. The average family pays more than $9,000 per year for child care, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And since the 1990s, the cost of child care has risen twice as fast as overall inflation.

At Bayfront Child Development Center at Bayfront Hospital in St. Petersburg, class sizes have had to be reduced to nine students per staffer, so it currently has half as many children at the center, which typically oversees 130 children ages 2 months to 4 years old.

“Every day I have a parent calling me to bring their children back, and they can’t come back yet,” said director Beth Birtha. “I have about 40 families right now that can’t return."

In addition, Birtha said the center is “bleeding money” as it complies with new operations, such as more-frequent cleaning, and having a staffer meet parents at the door for drop-off to take children’s temperatures before they are admitted.

The Hillsborough County Early Learning Coalition also saw a drop-off of child care providers as centers closed the past few months, but there are spots available throughout the system, said spokeswoman Jonna Johnson. They went from 483 centers that are contracted for school readiness programs to 183 currently.

But the county has more than 1,200 different kinds of child care options, from homes to preschools and child care centers, Johnson said, so their agency has a list of 4,000 available spots throughout the county. That may sound like a lot, but it still could mean a family will have to do some hunting for a new child care situation, depending where they live or work.

“With closures taking place daily, it can be a hard time finding the right fit for the right care,” Johnson said.

Some of the solutions being floated to help bolster the industry are allowing child care centers to have 15 children per worker instead of the current CDC recommendation of nine. There is also talk of using grants and subsidies to help them get through this period, though those details would have to be worked out after next week’s Pinellas County meeting.

If nothing else, this crisis might bring to the forefront just how tough child care can be for parents, Carson said.

“These essential workers actually help the rest of us go to work,” Carson said. “Now that they are on the brink of collapse, the least we can do as community is provide some support.”

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