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Child care providers worry as pandemic-era relief goes away

Kimberly Covington is the director of Creative Schools in Morrisville
Jason deBruyn
Kimberly Covington is the director of Creative Schools, a child care facility in Morrisville, N.C. She is worried that the expected end of federal pandemic-era funding for schools like hers will hurt staff retention.

In a classroom at Creative Schools in Morrisville, 3 and 4-year-olds roll out Play-Doh, then smash it flat and use cookie cutters to make shapes. The well-lit room has all the distinctive elements of a pre-K class. Letters and numbers in bright colors hang around the wall, and kids sit in chairs too small for adults.

Kimberly Covington directs this school and has been in the child care industry for almost a quarter century.

"I started out as a teacher and worked my way all the way up," Covington says. "So I know the business from the ground up."

When the pandemic first hit, some child care facilities stayed open to care for the kids of essential workers. With unemployment high and enrollment down, there were enough teachers to staff these facilities. As the economy picked up, Covington says staffing levels struggled to keep pace with the bounce-back in enrollment.

"Some days it's a guessing game, especially if you have staff that quit," she says. "Because it's easy to get burned out. You know, we're short-staffed so teachers have to work longer hours, [and] they get burned out really quick."

A breakdown of how North Carolina child care facilities used stabilization grant funds
Child Care Services Association
A breakdown of how North Carolina child care facilities used stabilization grant funds

Federal pandemic relief funds distributed more than $2 billion to 4,400 child care facilities across North Carolina. Schools used some of that money to pay teachers more, which helped to keep staff in schools. But that funding is going away at the end of this year, and if it's not backfilled in some way, Covington says it's going to hurt staff retention.

"If there's not a plan in place at schools and they have to reduce teacher salaries, it's going to be a major hit to the field," she says.

Commerce experts say failing child care centers would hurt the state's economy. Debra Derr, the North Carolina Chamber director for government affairs, says good child care is vital to support a good workforce.

"This is not a women's issue, and I bristle when I hear people say that," she says. "This is a family issue. It becomes a workforce issue; it becomes an economic development issue."

North Carolina's 3.4% unemployment rate has stayed low even as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates. As child care becomes inaccessible for many, it drives even more young workers out of the labor market. Derr says that makes finding workers even harder.

"It doesn't matter where you sit," she says. "If you sit at the bus stop or if you sit in the C-suite. The problem impacts people in every ZIP code, in every tax bracket and every political party."

Results of a survey conducted by N.C. Chamber Foundation
N.C. Chamber Foundation
Results of a survey conducted by N.C. Chamber Foundation

Findings from a recent Chamber survey back that up. Four out of five registered voters said child care is important to strengthen the economy.

"And I would say people are looking for action, too," said Meredith Archie, president of the N.C. Chamber Foundation which conducted the survey. "And that was something that was really interesting to see from the survey, was that 80% agree that North Carolina should invest in solutions."

At the legislature, that's exactly what some advocates have been calling for. The President of Child Care Services Association Kristi Snuggs is calling on state lawmakers to make up $300 million for federal stabilization grants that are going away.

"That's a lot of money. But in the big scheme of things it's not," says Snuggs. "And we know that there are reserves in North Carolina."

Kristi Snuggs is President of Child Care Services Association
Jason deBruyn
President of Child Care Services Association Kristi Snuggs wants to see state lawmakers fill in the funding gap for child care facilities after the federal government ends pandemic-era contributions.

Snuggs has identified one easy way to find that money. There's a plan to lower state income taxes to below 4% by 2027. The Republican-led Senate budget proposal would put that lower rate in place by next year.

"And by accelerating that, they're wiping out all of the funds that they could use to invest in child care," she says.

Earlier this year, the state did increase reimbursement rates for facilities that serve low-income families. Advocates say that helps, but they consider it more of a routine increase, not funding to backfill pandemic-era stimulus.

Additionally, the Senate budget proposal allows for some unused pandemic relief money to be diverted to child care facilities. But budget analysts say that would cover only about one-third of what advocates are asking for. And the House budget doesn’t include any help.

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.