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Tampa Bay on brink of child care crisis amid coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – The Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition believes a possible child care crisis is underway due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we are potentially on the brink of a crisis,” Lindsay Carson, CEO of Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition. “The absence of childcare would be really detrimental to our recovery.”

Empty playgrounds and lifeless child care centers are becoming a sight that’s being seen throughout the Bay area.

“At the start of COVID we had 387 centers in Pinellas County,” Carson said. “That’s now down to 382, and of those 147 remain closed.”

A total of five Pnellas County child care centers have closed so far. Two are in-home daycare facilities and three are storefront businesses. One of those being the Mt. Zion Childcare Center in St. Petersburg.

“It was a difficult decision to close the center because we were in a good place serving the community,” said Angela Rouson, Executive Director of the Mt. Zion Childcare Center.

While waiting for financial assistance during the pandemic, the center found themselves in a position where they couldn’t afford to pay employees, or couldn’t afford new equipment to align with new CDC guidelines.

“We understood we were facing something unknown and there was really no way to predict how much we would have to do in order to protect the safety of our children,” Rouson said. “We waited hoping that this pandemic would be short lived and we would be able to open the center full service again, but as the months went on we realized we were in no position to continue paying our staff.”

According to the Early Learning Coalition, this is an issue that’s happening across the board. They say the problems are that parents either don’t want to send their children to daycare or parents can’t afford it.

“We have to have available childcare,” Carson said. “Some parents are choosing to keep their children home, but for many parents that’s not an option and frankly we need parents to work.”

Carson also said the reason the area is seeing shut down centers is because there may not be enough space for children with limited capacities in place. Not to mention, some businesses can’t afford to stay open.

“Their teachers don’t necessarily have access to school-aged care for example, or they’re making more money on unemployment and it’s hard to bring them back,’ Carson said. “It’s hard when they know they can make more money at home than in the early ed classroom.”

Some of the closures in Pinellas County are standard summer closures, but many are due to COVID-19. Carson says some centers are facing permanent closures as they struggle to keep their doors open.

“After being closed for some time and then reopening, then coming back open with lower enrollment, we have a lot of providers sustaining themselves through PPP loans, the limited dollars they’re bringing in along with some other grant opportunities,” Carson said. “Without those resources it may become more and more difficult for them to sustain.”

Carson hopes local, state and federal government officials can help solve this problem.

“When public schools had to close, all these other businesses were closing,” Carson said. “You know who continued to show up? Childcare providers. Early educators who are often making minimum wage continued to show up to care for the children. The least we can do is support them.”

On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission approved a new county cares program. In the program, $5 million will go toward Pinellas County childcare centers that were impacted by the pandemic.

8 On Your Side reached out to the Hillsborough County Early Learning Coalition and the Hillsborough County Child Care Licensing to see the impact the pandemic is having on centers there. The HCELC said they only keep track of the number of child care centers they are contracted with to deliver school readiness or VPK programming. A spokesperson said “Our child care programs have not had the record closure numbers that were seen within other counties such as Pinellas.”

Hillsborough County Child Care Licensing did not respond to 8 On Your Sides’ multiple requests for information.

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