CHESAPEAKE, Ohio — The children at Stephanie Geneseo’s home-based child care center dart around in astronaut helmets while they battle green googly-eyed COVID alien germs, using play to learn about hand washing in a pandemic that shows no signs of letting up.
“I want to make it fun so that it didn’t seem like something bad or weird to them,” Geneseo says. “We’ve done everything we can to make it as normal to their day as it could be,” she said in July after she reopened All Nestled Inn, her center in Chesapeake, Ohio.
The return to caring for children after a 10-week coronavirus shutdown was anything but normal for the 51-year-old, known as Mrs. Steffy to the families she serves.
Keeping her young charges healthy weighs on Geneseo as she works 18-hour days, watching children from early morning to midnight, to keep the business she spent 22 years building afloat.
Ohio, like many places across the country, didn’t have enough child care options before coronavirus struck. The problem is more acute in the state’s rural areas, where parents have to travel further and the number of licensed centers – predominantly run by women – has steadily declined for more than a decade, according to state data obtained by The Fuller Project.
When Geneseo opened her small, home-based child care center in 1999 there were more than 370 centers like hers serving an 11-county swath of counties clustered at the state’s southern tip, which borders both West Virginia and Kentucky. Earlier this year, there were approximately 60 centers, a decline of more than 80 percent, according to licensing data provided by the Corporation for Appalachian Development (COAD), a nonprofit with a mission to improve the quality of life in Appalachian Ohio.
The pandemic is rapidly accelerating closures, widening a child care gap in a region where more than a quarter of all children under 12 live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Appalachian Ohio has yet to rebound from the economic blows dealt by the Great Recession and the opioid epidemic, which obliterated an already depressed workforce.
“I don’t think people understand that child care providers are your economic first responders,” Geneseo says. “If we don’t allow parents the opportunities to go to work, we’re helping shut down the economy.”
As of September, the number of licensed child care providers in Ohio has dropped more than 60 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to data provided to The Fuller Project by the Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees licenses and provides reimbursements to centers that serve low-income families.
That means the work of providers like Geneseo is even more critical now. Some parents carry out essential work: a mom who runs a nursing home, another who fills an evening shift at the local Pizza Hut to support her children while attending college, and teachers like 29-year-old Tessa Wooten.
Last summer, Wooten began her child care search for her boys, Ronan, now 5, and Raiden, 3, as she finished up her master’s degree in education and started her student teaching at a West Virginia high school.
Before then, Wooten and her fiance had switched shifts – she’d work nights copyediting and designing her hometown paper and he’d work days installing and repairing HVAC systems. That way someone was always home to care for their sons. It wasn’t easy, though, to find the right place.
“There wasn’t a whole lot to choose from,” she says.
Some providers only took in younger children and Wooten didn’t want the brothers separated, which she says would be “twice as stressful.”
Larger centers that she toured had crowded classrooms and limited hours. They didn’t feel like the right environment for playing and learning, and she was nervous about entrusting her boys to a “stranger” for eight or nine hours a day.
Wooten found All Nestled Inn among the limited options listed on a state website meant to help parents search for child care.
When she visited Geneseo’s home, tucked down a sloping hill with horses that graze in a nearby field, she knew she’d lucked out.
As children came in, Geneseo gave them each a hug, she said. They all ate breakfast together. Each child had their own plan for what they’d be learning each day in the classroom attached to her house.
“It’s a great, great atmosphere for the kids. And as soon as I walked in, I was like, they will like it here,” she recalls.
Wooten may not have realized how fortunate she was.
Lawrence County, where Wooten and Geneseo live, have enough child care spots for fewer than half of the children who need them. But Ohio’s southernmost county could be considered a child care oasis compared to others. To the north, in Harrison County, child care slots are available for less than a fifth of children aged 5 or under. In sprawling Adams County to the west, there are slots for a quarter of preschool age children who need child care.
Well before the pandemic, it was particularly hard in Ohio to find child care for infants and toddlers. In March, a Center for American Progress report found the state had enough space in standalone and home-based centers to care for only 30 percent of infants and toddlers.
No single factor explains the drop in licensed child care facilities. Slim profit margins and low pay for workers play a role, according to child care advocates interviewed by The Fuller Project. But so do state efforts to improve kindergarten readiness and the quality of care children receive in their early years.
The Step up to Quality program, launched statewide in 2006, created a system to rate providers, giving higher marks for using research-based curriculums, assessing child progress, and staff training, like completing college degrees. Those are in short supply in Ohio’s Appalachian counties where fewer than 18 percent of adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher from 2014-2018.
Providers with higher quality – measured from one to five stars -– get increased per-child reimbursements from the state. About a decade ago, state lawmakers made participation a requirement for providers who get public funding.
For the past few years, George Goddard was working to hold the line or boost the number of child care slots available in the 31 Ohio counties served by COAD, where he’s director of early care & education. In collaboration with Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services, they identified nearly 370 ZIP codes where child care options needed to be increased.
Some progress was being made, Goddard says, to recruit new providers, and to support them with grants and technical expertise as they navigated the state’s complex licensing, inspection and ratings system.
Despite all the hard work, plans for improvement and good intentions, the pandemic shut everything down in March and the “wheels kind of fell off,” he says.
It’s a critical time to shore up support for high-quality early childcare, particularly for children in low-wealth communities, Lynanne Gutierrez, policy director for Groundwork Ohio said. That means celebrating the achievement of getting 90 percent of providers in the ratings system – and addressing “grave concerns” about the loss of capacity in communities that were already lacking before the virus hit.
The state has offered some support post-shutdown – though providers and advocates say not nearly enough – to help providers reopen and make up for financial losses. They face higher costs from purchasing personal protective equipment and thermometers and from reduced enrollment.
Since June, the state doled out more than $117.4 million in federal funding it received through the CARES Act. About half went to child care centers that served essential workers in health care, law enforcement and grocery stores. The rest is being used to reimburse centers serving fewer children than before the pandemic. Geneseo received about $700 each month to make up for lost income as well as a separate $1,000 emergency assistance loan.
About 1,200 of the state’s 9,000 child care providers applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, in amounts from $600 to just under $150,000, with an average of $43,000. The loans can be “forgiven” if all requirements are met to keep people employed.
Compounding the problem, providers who have not achieved a rating as of Sept. 1, a deadline already delayed three month due to the pandemic, will no longer be eligible for public funding, further reducing child care options.
Tough choices for owners
For some center operators, the long-term uncertainty proved too much.
When Megan Riddlebarger, 39, was forced to shutter the Sycamore Run Early Childhood Center for good in July, she says it felt like losing her first baby. Fifteen years ago, she established the center, which served about 50 children on two and a half acres in a village called The Plains outside of Athens, Ohio.
At first, Riddlebarger figured Sycamore Run was set up perfectly to cope with the pandemic. The tidy brick building had classrooms with separate entrances that would work well to keep kids and teachers in small groups.
But the women Riddlebarger employed, including some who had been with her for more than a decade in jobs that paid above minimum wage, with paid vacation, didn’t want to return. At the time, they could make more money each week on unemployment.
With not enough staff and an uncertain financial future, she was forced to close. Now, in a new role—as executive director of COAD— Riddlebarger says she can’t find childcare for her own two children. To get by, Riddlebarger’s husband has taken an extended leave from the company where he’s worked for 20 years, to care for their children.
Riddlebarger is among thousands of child care providers snuffed out by the pandemic, many for good.
Two out of every five providers in the U.S. surveyed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in July said that without additional public assistance they were certain to close permanently.
In Ohio, nearly half of the 695 providers who answered the survey said they could close for good. Almost 90 percent were serving fewer children than before the pandemic and reported that costs for cleaning supplies, staff and equipment to protect the health of staff and students had skyrocketed. Women make up 95 percent of the child care workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center and have the most to lose when centers close.
“There’s no reason why our society can’t choose to put more money into this problem,” Riddlebarger says.
“Continuing to put it all on the backs of providers and families is wrong.”
Those backs, she clarified, often belong to women.
Reopening during COVID-19
Back at All Nestled Inn, Geneseo sits at her kitchen table, air conditioning cooling the room on a sweltering July day, while 2 ½-year-old twins Maxwell and Isaiah snack on cheese squares, grapes and crackers from small plastic containers.
The two months since All Nestled Inn reopened have been exhausting, as Geneseo balances the ever-changing shift schedules of more than two dozen parents and makes more trips to buy food and sanitizing supplies, which are sometimes rationed by the stores.
Weeks earlier, she says she completed her quarterly business taxes, which showed the dramatic drop the pandemic had on her income.
“I’ve never taken a government handout in my life. The state paid us our base pay,” she says. “Had they not paid me that I would have had zero income in the last three months.”
Before COVID-19 struck, she was working to expand All Nestled Inn to serve up to 12 children instead of six, an expensive process that includes obtaining a different state license and hiring and training an employee – her first – who she then had to lay off in March.
During the 10 weeks in the spring the state shut down, Geneseo dropped pizza and care packages for the families of children she watched, sometimes waving from a distance to the children. Inside were bubbles to blow, wooden Easter eggs to paint and tips for parents on how to establish a routine. She prepared for the kids to return, remaking her curriculum with outer space-themed lessons to help the children use play to adjust to the realities of life during a pandemic.
Geneseo is adjusting, too. Trying to figure out how to forge forward with her plan to expand and provide child care to more families, who desperately need it.
Maxwell and Isaiah scamper ahead, into a light-filled preschool classroom, built by her brother and her husband.
On the bright blue reading couch is a children’s book about viruses and social distancing called “A Little Spot Stays Home.” A gel-filled “germ” Geneseo found at the local Dollar Tree sits on one of the toddler-sized tables.
The germ can travel everywhere from their hands to their toes, she explains matter-of-factly to Isaiah, and some germs leave behind particles that can make people sick. “That’s why Mrs. Steffy says every time we change our activities, we have to wash our what?” she asks.
“Hands,” Isaiah squeals.
“That’s right,” she says, setting the germ aside to disinfect later.
This article was originally published by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit newsroom, The Fuller Project. The Fuller Project is a global nonprofit journalism newsroom reporting on issues that affect women.