AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jason Gindele describes a stillness that Mainspring Schools has never dealt with over its 79-years.
The sound of students echoing through the halls has been silenced. Classrooms are empty. There are no kids running around the playground.
“These are not easy times, you know. We closed much like everyone else did in March — in an effort to flatten the curve,” explained Gindele, who is the executive director at the school in south-central Austin. “We were actually close to reopening back in June and then there was a surge in cases around Travis County and we held off.”
According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, since March there’s been 3,098 reported positive cases of COVID-19 across 1,801 child care operations. The vast majority are staff which make up 2,055 of the cases, but 1,043 children have also tested positive.
“The one thing that keeps me up at night is the idea that we open our doors in an unsafe environment, someone gets exposed to COVID-19, and that has you know some dramatic and tragic effect on someone’s life,” Gindele said.
Parents left with fewer options
The state’s data shows that nearly 4,800 child care centers have closed between February and now. The number represents about 28% of all operations in Texas that haven’t reopened yet.
“It’s a crisis for our state and for our community because access to childcare is essential infrastructure for our economy,” explained Cathy McHorse, Vice President of Success by 6 at the United Way for Greater Austin, which focuses on early childhood education.
McHorse said when families don’t have options for reliable and safe child care that impacts job productivity and there’s increased absences and higher turnover.
“What we find is that the COVID pandemic and its impact on child care is just exacerbating a crisis and a fragmented system that we had prior to COVID,” explained McHorse. “It’s exponentially increasing this crisis on our state — in our community.”
McHorse, who is also part of the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Child Care Task Force, explained that she’s hearing from operators about low enrollment concerns and the cost of safety precautions including cleaning and sanitizing.
“The cost of providing care safely under COVID conditions is adding costs of about $300 to $900 per month — per child – and that’s not sustainable for the child care operation to cover those costs, and it’s not sustainable to pass the costs on to families with young children,” said McHorse.
In May, the Austin City Council approved $1 million for the Austin Childcare Provider Relief Grant to help operations from March to June.
McHorse said the taskforce is looking for other funding options. She said child care operations will need help beyond a few months during this pandemic.
“We know our child care providers right now are forecasting that … without additional investment, or support with their revenue that they will have to layoff or furlough employees, those that are open and operating,” McHorse explained. “After that I imagine we’ll start to see programs closing their doors with no plans to reopen their doors in the long term, and that truly will have a profound impact on our ability to attract businesses and keep our businesses open.”
McHorse explained that the federal government authorized $371 million to the state for child care during this pandemic. She said $200 million has been allocated, but $171 million has been reserved by Gov. Greg Abbott in case it’s needed to fill budget deficits.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Child Care is Essential Act with a $50 billion relief package to help fund child care centers as the COVID-19 crisis continues. The U.S. Senate has introduced a relief package that would provide $15 billion for child care.
Advocacy groups including Texans Care for Children say leaders are negotiating their next move and it’s critical that they hear from parents and operators trying to financially survive.
Surviving a pandemic
Mainspring schools, which serves low income families, did get a federal loan for $230,000. Gindele explained that they used the money to pay for 30 employees, mostly teachers, for two months, along with rent and utilities.
“The support that’s needed for the child care industry is not just during the pandemic and doesn’t just stop when the pandemic ends. It actually has to continue for a short time thereafter because inevitably enrollment — while it’s down now — may not get to 100% by the time the pandemic ends,” Gindele said. “There’s got to be more bridge money even at the end of the pandemic to get folks through this.”
Gindele tells KXAN investigator Arezow Doost that they will need funding to survive and not furlough or layoff any staff in the months to come.
The non-profit is now fundraising, but Gindele said they’ve had to dip into savings to help families of students in need.
His staff now gets together regularly to box up clothes, food and books and deliver them to their families needing help.
Gindele said he can’t wait to get the students back in the classroom safely.
“The ages between 0 and 5 are just crucial, absolutely crucial years, for these children to develop in so many different ways socially emotionally, curricularly,” said Gindele said. “Those milestones are being missed and for a lot of these kids, especially at-risk kids, who are coming from situations where they may not have the supports at home to continue to develop they’re going to see regression.”