DEFOREST, Wis. (WMTV) - At Yahara River Learning Center in DeForest, young kids are running through the grass, binoculars in hand, hoping to spot a bird.
“We wrote for a nature science outdoor grant for our 4K and school agers for ornithology and other flora of Wisconsin including trees and stuff so we could study that,” said owner Macy Buhler. “All those little things add up, they have helped.”
Buhler is referring to the impact of grants, valuable lifelines that have helped her business stay afloat during the pandemic. Buhler said in 2020, she received support from a number of different grants totaling more than $100,000.00. The importance of that money is not lost on her, or her tax accountant.
“He said, ‘if it wasn’t for all the grants you received, I would have absolutely told you to shut down last spring.’ He’s like ‘absolutely, this couldn’t have happened without that, and I hope you realize that,’” Buhler said. “I absolutely realize that.”
Buhler said even a year later, all has not returned to normal.
“As far as having all our families back, we’re still short, especially some of the older classes where we’re trying not to put as many kids as we had before, because we’re tying to follow that three to six foot distance the best we can,” Buhler said. “So safety wise we’re still low on kids, which makes us low on income and low on tuition because of that.”
Throughout the pandemic, Buhler had faced increased expenses for things like cleaning supplies, while also paying more for staffing.
“We’re also staffing more,” she said. “We have to have coverage for all the extra illnesses that people are out for now, so staffing costs are much higher. And staffing costs are higher also because we’re trying not to mix cohorts, which means we’re keeping groups of teachers together and groups of kids together.”
Through resources like the Paycheck Protection Program, and the generosity of her families, many of whom were willing to pay half tuition when Buhler was only serving essential workers, Buhler has come out the other side of the pandemic. But she’s not in the clear just yet.
“It’s going to be a month to month, quarter to quarter type of thing,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”
Buher is not alone in the challenges she has faced over the course of the pandemic.
I want to be really clear, the pandemic stressed an industry and a system that was already frankly at its breaking point
“The pandemic hit and within a matter of weeks, almost 40% of child care centers and family providers in Wisconsin were forced to close,” said Secretary Emilie Amundson of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.
Amundson said before the pandemic, the child care and early education industry was already under stress.
“Going into the pandemic, I want to be really clear, the pandemic stressed an industry and a system that was already frankly at its breaking point,” she said. “It’s been a historic issue that’s plagued child care, and Wisconsin isn’t alone in that. There’s just simply not enough funding for child care. Child care centers operate on absolutely razor thin margins, and that had already put the industry kind of on the edge of a precipice, and that was pre pandemic.”
Amundson also described the issues families face when trying to find child care, including long waiting lists, lack of accessible child care options, and the expense of child care.
“Whether you stayed open or whether you closed, you were finding yourself in a really difficult situation, often losing staff and certainly losing families and struggling with again, how do you make ends meet?” Amundson asked.
Amundson said funding from the federal and state levels helped some centers through.
“There was dedicated federal funding through the Child Care and Development Block Grant that came directly to all 50 states to support the child care industry,” she said.
Amundson also said on a state level, the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families developed a program called Child Care Counts to support early care and education through the pandemic. According to their website, nearly $131 million dollars has been paid to child care providers in Wisconsin so far. The application process for an additional round of payments closed on April 30.
“Wisconsin was able to develop a program called Child Care Counts and again, those centers that had to make the difficult decision to close for a period of time, there was a pot of funding to help them reopen,” she said. “The centers that did remain open during the pandemic, there was a pot for those centers to put into place enhanced safety protocols and purchase the kinds of PPE that they needed to continue to provide care. And then there was a third pot of funding to really work on increasing the hourly wage during the pandemic for the workforce who was continuing to work almost as essential workers.”
Now, Amundson said that about 2 or 3% of the centers that closed during the pandemic remain closed.
Both Amundson and Buhler hope the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of child care and early education, and that the industry receives more support in the future.
“We have seen through the pandemic our early care and education workforce work so hard, be so flexible, be so really Herculean in the lift that we’ve asked them to do,” Amundson said. “I just think if you’re a parent that uses child care currently or if you’ve relied on child care through the pandemic, please thank an early care and education worker or provider, they have just moved mountains.”
“We have learned that this is a critical infrastructure and we’re going to need support going forward from the community, whether its federal or state or both, we’re going to need to do that,” said Buhler.
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