When Freeport day care director Janna Rodriguez started receiving monthly installments of a $50,000 Child Care Stabilization Grant, she used it to chip away at the $25,000 balance that ballooned on her business credit cards during the pandemic.
"We're grateful for it, but it was given too late," said Rodriguez, executive director of Innovative Day Care Corp, a bilingual program that serves low-income, Black and Latino children and incorporates mental health and civics lessons. "We were already in debt."
By the time the federal-stimulus grants became available, some had gone under and others became mired in debt. The sector is still struggling and looking for long-term solutions from Washington, where lawmakers are considering a measure that would subsidize child-care costs for many parents.
The total number of child care providers operating out of homes fell by 44 or nearly 10% in Suffolk County, and by 32 or nearly 5% in Nassau County from the end of 2019 to Nov. 4, according to the state Office of Children and Family Services, which licenses providers. The number of centers serving young and school-aged children changed by less than 5% in both counties, the data shows.
"There needs to be a greater public investment into the child care system, so that people can earn a living wage and parents can afford the care," said Jennifer Marino Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk, Inc. an educational resource and referral provider.
The state began accepting applications in August for $1.07 billion in grants available to providers that were operating before the pandemic hit. About $59.16 million has been authorized for nearly 1,510 child care providers on Long Island — or more than 90% of the region's licensed facilities, according to Marino Rojas. Others have through Nov. 30 to apply.
The grants allow day care centers to offer hiring bonuses and higher wages, but many are still dealing with staffing shortages, debt and the growing cost of goods, Marino Rojas and providers said. Companies in retail and other sectors have been able to offer more pay and better benefits during the worker shortage.
Minimum staff-to-child ratios as well as training and licensing requirements push tuition up to roughly $10,000 to $18,000 annually per child, according to Marino Rojas. She said most parents wouldn't be able to afford more, and these rates only allow for staff to make about $15 or $16 an hour.
SCOPE Education Services, which provides prekindergarten and before- and after-school care for about 5,700 children, managed to avoid closing classrooms, but has about 800 children on wait lists, according to Executive Director George Duffy III.
This summer SCOPE started offering hiring and retention bonuses, referral incentives and raised wages, Duffy said. But he'd still need about 100 more workers to meet community demand.
"We've done everything we think we can do to attract people to the field," he said. "It's just not enough, I guess."
Besides boosting pay, the grants are helping SCOPE recover from losses incurred earlier during COVID-19 and with the cost of protocols aimed at curbing the spread of the disease, Duffy said. For instance, SCOPE can no longer buy juice and snacks in bulk, but must purchase individually packaged food and juice boxes.
"Those stabilization grants have really been a true godsend," he said.
Innovative Day Care Corp. fell behind early in the pandemic. Enrollment dropped, but school-aged kids were both present and virtually attending classes — which drove up internet, water and utility bills, Rodriguez said.
All of her students returned later in 2020, and Rodriguez brought back her two assistants last August. She recently raised their pay by 25 cents an hour, but would like to be able to better compensate everyone at Innovative.
Rodriguez and her students have been urging state and federal lawmakers to increase government investment in early child care. Her children finished an art project Thursday that heralded the benefits of early education for Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), who voted Friday in the House to advance the Build Back Better package that would cap how much many families pay for child care.
"For the first time, we actually feel like we're being listened to," said Rodriguez, 32, a Freeport native.