GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — For 27 years, the staff at Milestones School of Achievement in Greensboro have cared for some of the Triad’s youngest learners.
“A hug from a child to start my day is just the best thing ever,” said Becky Smith, the center’s administrator.
But she also knows the struggle childcare centers face striking a balance between charging tuition that is affordable for working families while also running a business.
“Our business definitely relies on the tuition from the parents,” Smith said. “That is what we pay the staff with and how we purchase equipment and materials to use and keep the center modern, secure and safe for the children.”
In Oct. 2021, Governor Roy Cooper announced North Carolina Childcare Stabilization Grants: an $805 million federal investment as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Some centers used the compensation funds for staff bonuses, while others, including Milestones, gave their employees raises. According to Smith, that helped keep the doors open during an especially difficult time for childcare centers.
“During COVID, we didn’t shut down, and we did not let any of our staff go,” Smith said. “With our payroll being about $100,000 a month, it was going to be hard for us to keep that going when about 80 percent of our enrollment went away.”
The funds were critical yet temporary. According to Theresa Roedersheimer, senior early childhood policy advisor with DHHS, that’s concerning to a lot of centers.
“What we’re really hearing from our programs is that they are worried about what will happen when this funding fully ends,” Roedersheimer said. “They’re concerned about their programs closing. They’re also concerned about possibly having to increase their rates and pass that financial burden onto their parents and families enrolled in their programs.”
According to nonpartisan thinktank The Century Foundation, 155,539 children in North Carolina are at risk of losing their childcare when the funding runs out, and 1,778 programs could close.
“Even before the pandemic, the childcare business model posed challenges to both families and providers,” Roedersheimer said. “It’s the ripple effect we’re seeing that the pandemic further stressed because parents can’t afford to pay more, and our programs are struggling to maintain what they have.”
Roedersheimer believes consistent long-term investments are needed to help childcare programs thrive.
“There are multiple things we’re working on to try to not just band-aid what’s going on but really get some good sustainable solutions for making sure that we have sustainable childcare system in North Carolina for our children and families,” Roedersheimer said.
The childcare stabilization grants expired Oct. 1, but the current budget allows the division of child development and early education to use remaining COVID funds to extend the compensation grants through next June.