May 13, 2020
New America's Early & Elementary Education Policy program and Better Life Lab are collecting stories from the field to uplift the provider/educator voice and elevate lessons from communities, school districts, and states during the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more about how early childhood education programs are coping with the pandemic, I spoke with Jamie Bonczyk, Executive Director of Hopkins Early Learning Center in Hopkins, Minnesota, located just west of Minneapolis. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little about your center prior to the pandemic? How many children and what ages did you serve, and how many employees did you have?
Hopkins Early Learning Center (HELC) opened its doors in 1981. As a pioneer in high-quality early childhood education, we were one of the first NAEYC-accredited centers in Minnesota and part of the Parent Aware pilot program. Half of our 28 employees have been in the field of early childhood for over 20 years with most spending their entire career with HELC!
We hold 117 licensed child care slots. Before COVID-19 we were full and had a wait list. HELC has a mixed financial model that includes family pay, scholarships, and child care subsidy payments. Finding educators who specialize in infant and toddler care and providing the low ratios to provide the education and care needed is hard, which means that there are less spots available. Over 50 percent of our programming is dedicated to infants and toddlers because that is where the greatest need is in our community.
How has the pandemic changed the nature of your center’s work in terms of financial difficulties, the need to furlough employees, etc?
We closed down completely for two weeks to create a response plan. During that time, we paid our educators and did not charge our families tuition. We had already heard that many of our parents were getting furloughed and not getting paid. When we decided to reopen in a limited capacity we called in ¼ of our staff, ¼ used PTO, and ½ were furloughed.
Are you currently providing emergency child care for essential workers? If so, what difficulties have you encountered in providing this care?
About 40 percent of our families identify as Tier 1 / Critical Sector employees as defined by the Governor's order, although few, if any, are “frontline” workers. Regardless of work class identification, we have been cleaning our facility as if all families are healthcare workers, which takes more staff time and resources. We have had to take trips to stores far beyond our service area to pick up the supplies it takes to operate at this time.
Did your center decide to apply for a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program? Why or why not?
We did apply for Payroll Protection. The money ran out in round one before our application was processed. Our application has been submitted for round two and is with the SBA. However, we have not yet received notification if we will get these funds. Without them we will continue to spend down reserves, which will impact our ability to remain a financially viable organization. We have been awarded a $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the SBA.
Are your teachers currently engaged in any sort of remote learning or other efforts to connect with children and families? If so, what does that look like?
We are staying connected with staff and families through a variety of social outlets. During this time we are:
- Posting daily to Facebook about activities children can do at home, as well as resources to help families address Covid-19 in the home;
- Frequently posting videos of songs, stories, and activities to our YouTube channel;
- Sharing inspiration for at-home activities on our Pinterest Page; and
- Sending out status updates as needed via email.
Our Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant helped reaffirm that the most important things we can do right now as parents and caregivers of children is taking care of ourselves and connecting with our children. This link provides more details about our plan for our educators and how parents or community members can support children during this time.
What kind of financial hit has the center taken as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
For years, our budget has been 80 percent staff benefits and wages, 10 percent facilities, and 10 percent operational costs. Our fixed costs have remained the same, our cleaning costs have increased, and our revenue has greatly been reduced. Assuming that our enrollment numbers would have stayed the same if we were not impacted by COVID 19, we have lost just under $100,000 in predicted income so far.
When thinking about your center’s future, are you hopeful that you’ll soon be able to serve as many children as you did prior to the pandemic?
Currently, we are serving less than 20 percent of our 117 children. In child care, tuition is directly tied to operating capital. Our revenue has greatly been reduced while our fixed costs have remained the same. Without the ability to stabilize our funding, we jeopardize the very foundation of what makes HELC and programs like ours high-quality: our ability to recruit, retain, and compensate an incredibly qualified workforce, especially those working with our infants and toddlers.
It is unlikely that we will return to “business as usual” in the near future. Our current projections have us serving just over ½ our capacity by June. Children do not socially distance and, at this time, we believe that the most responsible thing we can do is to limit each classroom size to no more than 10 people.
Have you received any sort of help or guidance from the state government? Are there actions the state could take to make the current situation easier?
Governor Tim Walz, Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Senator Tina Smith are actively advocating for funding that will help early childhood programs be financially viable during this pandemic. The funding that has been provided is a step in the right direction; however, what has been provided so far has only been awarded to ¼ of the programs that applied. The Governor’s Children’s Cabinet has hosted bi-weekly calls for early childhood programs and providers with state department employees, created a website and a hotline, and sent out emails in an effort to help all programs understand the guidance that has been issued during this time.
The guidance for child care that has been provided has continued to be redirected back to the CDC. Additionally, the Department of Labor and Industry provided a template for all Minnesota businesses. Although this was not specific to child care, it was a helpful template to use when creating a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the hardships child care providers and early educators are currently facing?
COVID-19 has been disruptive to us all and, for many children, the challenges may not yet be seen. Early childhood programs will need access to resources to respond to trauma. This can be done by expanding mental health consultation services to allow providers to access supports to address their own trauma and the trauma young children are experiencing as a result of the pandemic.
Author Neil Gaiman is quoted as saying, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” My experiences before coming to HELC have shaped my response to this pandemic. I taught and supported teachers in neighborhoods with very real safety concerns on the south and west sides of Chicago. I have had to work with an epidemiologist at Minnesota Department of Health to contact trace measles exposures. And I have been trained in trauma informed care because for ½ my career I worked in communities where many of the staff, children, and families had experiences that deeply impacted their health and wellbeing.
These experiences coupled with the fact that Hopkins Early Learning Center is a non-profit, with a (volunteer) Board of Directors who specialize in finance, business administration, law, public health, child development, marketing (within the healthcare field), and education systems have made a significant difference in our ability to navigate this storm. HELC needed all of this content expertise to digest the complexity of changes that occurred as a result of COVID-19. The hours of work that the Board contributed their time and talents allowed us to act swiftly and with intention during this crisis. Many early childhood programs do not have the benefit of this level of support.
For more information about HELC, check out this video. And for more stories about overcoming the challenges of COVID-19, check out New America’s Strengthening Child Care and Early Education: Learning from COVID-19 page.
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