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A list of procedures in use to decrease the risk of novel coronavirus COVID-19 infection, posted on an exterior door of Mother's Choice Child Care Center in Baton Rouge, seen Thursday, April 9, 2020. They're one of the few day care centers open still during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 public health threat that has shut down many businesses.

Louisiana child care providers have lost $30 million because of the coronavirus pandemic and need more than double that to help re-start the economy, advocates and key business leaders said Wednesday.

The request for aid totals $71 million, mostly federal dollars.

The money would help providers, most of whom have closed because of the virus, to re-open and remain solvent while serving smaller numbers of students at affordable rates.

"Without increased investments in early child care and education, parents and caregivers working in every industry will not be able to return to work and keep the economy moving," said Libbie Sonnier, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute, a child advocacy group.

Others who joined the announcement included Camille Conaway, senior vice-president of the Louisiana Association and Industry, Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., and former state Senate President Randy Ewing, a member of the Louisiana Board of Regents.

The state Department of Education has said that only 31% of the state's 1,400 publicly licensed centers statewide remain open amid dwindling attendance caused by the virus, and parents staying home.

About 200 are closed in the Baton Rouge area.

An earlier survey by the institute said providers had lost $1.7 million initially.

Sonnier said she was surprised to see that the latest survey – taken April 13-20 – showed operators have suffered much higher losses than initial estimates.

"That is staggering," she said. "How do you make up for that?"

The first survey was done in March.

Conaway said child care centers are essentially small businesses, and even before the pandemic operated on small profit margins.

Officials said 98% of centers that remain open are serving the children of essential workers.

Those closed affect about 83,000 children, they said, and child care centers say they need an average of $23,000 to re-open.

More than one of three centers say they will remain closed permanently if the shutdown continues, according to the latest survey.

Those sites care for more than 12,000 children and employ about 2,000 full and part-time workers.

The request includes $26 million in federal funds to finance increased cleaning and sanitation at the centers, rehiring, screening staff and operational expenses.

Another $20 million in federal dollars would allow centers to operate with smaller groups of students while keeping tuition at pre-pandemic rates.

Health guidelines require smaller groups, which reduces the enrollment capacity at child care centers.

Advocates said that, without assistance, those caps could spark tuition hikes of 35% for infants and over 60% for 4-year-olds.

Operators of nearly three out of four early learning centers said earlier they are not collecting tuition during the pandemic.

The state is getting at least $1.8 billion in federal aid to help combat costs of the health emergency.

Whether any of that money can be used to provide relief to child care centers is unclear.

Ewing said there is wide agreement on the merits of early child care.

"Here is the hitch," Ewing said. "It costs money. Lots of money."

Hecht said stabilizing the industry is needed both to educate children and to allow parents to return to work.

"We think that the need for early child care is so essential that we are putting it up front to opening the economy," he said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he is lifting some of his stay-at-home restrictions effective May 16, which will allow more employees to resume work.

The other $25 million of the $71 million requested would be state aid to help subsidize low-income families of 4,000 children so they can afford child care while they work, attend school or undergo job training.

Backers said the subsidies are especially needed since more than 361,000 state residents have filed for unemployment benefits because of the pandemic.

Edwards included the $25 million in his initial operating budget, and supporters were heartened that the issue was gaining visibility after years of efforts.

However, that request may be a casualty of the $1 billion hole in the budget triggered by the pandemic.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.