Editor's Note: This is the 18th in a series of short features on small businesses responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Look What I Can Do Learning Center in Brookland (Craighead County) has seen a sharp decline in enrollment, the result of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the EF-3 tornado that tore through the community in late March.
Before the double whammy of disasters, 240 children were enrolled at the center that opened in March 2013, Co-owner Tiffany Sharp said. It cares for newborns to pre-k graduates and a small group of school-age children.
Enrollment dropped to 181. The first few weeks of the outbreak, daily attendance was about half that, though it has been making a comeback recently. Sharp said daily attendance had partially rebounded, to between 130 and 140.
“It’s been a whirlwind. I guess that’d be the fairest word to use between the two things,” she said. “Major adjustments have taken place, a lot of unexpected changes and adaptations to those changes, and just trying to keep everybody calm and safe as much as we’re able to.”
Parents have been laid off because of the pandemic, or they don’t have jobs because the tornado destroyed the business they worked for, or they are working from home. So they either can’t afford child care or don’t think they need it right now, Sharp said.
“So that's made a huge impact on us, as a small business, as far as revenue coming in to be able to continue operations,” she said. “To ensure that our staff receive their paychecks, we've had to make a lot of behind-the-scenes changes that people wouldn't normally think of unless you were a business owner, so that we can continue to paint that picture that we're gonna be there in the future.”
Fortunately, the center has not had to lay off or furlough any of its 49 employees. Instead, some people have been assigned to do things they wouldn’t normally do, like cleaning, to offset their reduced hours.
Sharp said she has applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and for Small Business Administration loans. But the increased state payments for child care centers didn’t help because the center is “99% private pay.”
Enrollment isn’t the only issue it’s had to address; supplies have been difficult to come by.
Her business typically buys milk in bulk from a local grocer, but, for the first few weeks after Arkansas’ first C-19 case was recorded, it couldn’t do that. Because of hoarding, every shopper was allowed to buy only two gallons. Sharp said her husband drove to several stores, buying two gallons from each so that they’d have enough for the kids at their center.
Other items that have been difficult to obtain include disinfectant, gloves and paper products: “things that you have to have when you work with children,” she said.
In the long-term, post-coronavirus, Sharp said it’s likely the center will have to raise tuition rates on both incoming and current families “just to ensure that we can continue operating … because the entire year's revenue is diminished, basically.”
The center will also look at ways to cut costs, she said, such as buying different supplies and hosting less-expensive events for families and the staff.
Sharp said child care centers like hers operate on tight margins, and many will not be around after this is they aren’t helped now.
The community can help prevent child care centers from closing permanently by advocating now for public investment to sustain these mostly privately-owned businesses, and by keeping their children enrolled if they can afford it, she said.