Her daycare was already on the brink. Then coronavirus struck.

This story about child care providers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

ROUND ROCK, Texas — It was still dark outside when several children started grabbing puzzles and toy cars off the shelves of Shemonica Flemings’ daycare center. A few cried as their parents and grandparents did early-morning drop-offs. Then came the inevitable sound of a tantrum.

A preschooler threw himself on the ground and kicked a bookshelf. Flemings got down next to him. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I want to play!” the boy whined, pointing at another child holding a toy car. He kicked the bookshelf a few more times.

“Wait, look at me,” Flemings said. The boy hesitated and then complied.

“When you get angry, we don’t sit on the floor and kick,” Flemings said in a calm voice. “When he’s finished, you can have it. Wait your turn.”

Flemings helped the boy up. He eyed the other child, watching closely for a chance to take over if the toy was abandoned.

A child plays on the ground at Katie’s Place daycare. The center lost more than a dozen students after local elementary schools opened free public pre-K programs.

Tantrums are commonplace in all daycare centers, but here at Katie’s Place daycare, they are part of the regular rhythm of each day. After a 16-year career as a special education teacher in a nearby school district, Flemings, 38, opened the daycare in 2018 to serve children with disabilities, behavior issues and, more generally, families in need.

Her own 3-year-old, Katie, the center’s namesake, has autism, and Flemings was frustrated at how she’d been treated in child care centers. In her second career, she hoped to make a living doing what she cared about most: creating a warm, caring place for kids from difficult and traumatic backgrounds.

The coronavirus outbreak could destroy everything she’s worked for.

Child care centers nationwide are in danger of closing indefinitely as the coronavirus has forced families to keep kids at home. Attendance rates at licensed child care centers plummeted by more than 70% nationwide in just one week in mid-March. With many parents out of work, some centers have had to lay off low-paid child care workers and close their doors.

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Like so many child care centers, the finances of Katie’s Place were tight to begin with. To open the center, Flemings took out $60,000 from her retirement savings, a $10,000 loan and $18,000 from an investment account. Within a few months, 31 children attended her center full time. Many dealt with food insecurity and trauma at home. All but two children received child care subsidies through the state of Texas, which reimburses Flemings about $36 per day for each infant — less than $5 an hour for children who stay a full day.

Shemonica Flemings comforts an infant at her daycare center during its first year of operation. Eventually Flemings had to stop accepting infants due to the high cost of caring for them.

After her first month in operation, Flemings realized she wasn’t bringing in enough money through these state-funded subsidies to make payroll. She cried the day she had to take out a loan to pay her three employees, who made just $8.50 to $10 an hour. Her biweekly payroll was about $5,900.

Flemings’ situation is far too common in the world of child care, where businesses, most of them run by women, often struggle to survive. This is especially true for centers that accept children from low-income families who pay through state subsidies funded by federal grants. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, those centers have seen much of their revenue cut off: Many states only send subsidy money for each day a child attends daycare.

Even before the coronavirus, child care centers nationwide were running at a deficit. Only four states’ low-income subsidies pay adequate rates for infant care at child care centers, according to a 2018 report from the National Women’s Law Center. The federal government recommends states pay child care providers less than market rate, at the 75th percentile. In Texas, a 2018 market rate survey determined the 75th percentile for full-day infant care at a licensed center to be $49 a day.

If families can’t make up the difference, child care directors either run their centers on a shoestring or accept a loss.

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Eight months in, Flemings was trying to bring in enough money to pay six employees, three of them — including herself — full time. Her most experienced teacher earned $11 an hour and took home about $880 every two weeks. And then there were supplies, repairs, utilities and food for the children. Most kids spent the entire day with Flemings, which meant she had to buy enough food to serve three meals and three snacks a day to more than a dozen kids. Flemings also set out a bucket of snacks in the evenings so kids had food to take home.

Because nearly all her families paid using subsidies, raising tuition was futile. Instead, Flemings depended on the kindness of neighbors, the help of parents, and strangers in Facebook groups, who offered goods and services for free.

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Four months after opening the center, Flemings, her toddler and her husband, who works as a supervisor for a company that helps inmates transition out of prison, moved out of their apartment and in with his elderly mother to save money. It was the first time Flemings had lived under someone else’s roof since she left for college at age 18.

Experts say the way the U.S. funds child care creates a cycle of poverty for daycare workers. “The system is actually being subsidized on the back of the child care providers,” said Bethany Edwards, a research and policy associate at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

Flemings sees it the same way. By enrolling children with subsidies – children from working families, whose parents often earn low wages – centers are “practically giving away child care,” she said.

‘I don’t want her spanked’

Shemonica Flemings carries snacks outside during a Valentine’s Day celebration at her child care center.

Flemings never imagined she would be a child care center director. Not when she left the small town of Cameron, Texas, for college. Or when she graduated with a master’s degree in educational psychology. Or when she earned her second master’s degree, this time in teacher leadership.

She loved her job in the school system. Flemings had dreamed about being a teacher since kindergarten. She and her family were also secure. “I wasn’t rich by any means,” Flemings said. “But we definitely weren’t worried about anything.” In those days, they had their own apartment, money to “do things and enjoy life,” and could afford to take small trips. They had more free time. Flemings had benefits and paid sick days.

But Flemings was also constantly uneasy about her daughter’s child care situation. Katie, a playful 3-year-old with an impish smile, is largely non-verbal. By age 2, Katie had been kicked out of four daycares. While attending one center, Katie began to show new, disturbing behavior, which included smacking herself. Flemings immediately suspected her daughter was being spanked and was trying to communicate that.

“I know her behavior is challenging. I’m not denying that,” Flemings said. “But I don’t want her spanked.”

She bought the daycare business for $10,000 from a woman who was retiring. The $10,000 included tables and chairs, a microwave, couch, desktop computer and a large box of toys. She used the rest of her retirement money to pay for other necessities, including colorful, soft gym mats for a small play room, a washing machine and dryer, a new microwave and repairs to a fence around the playground in the backyard. The fire safety system that she thought was active when she purchased the center turned out to be disconnected, and she had to shell out $5,000 to get it repaired and connected to the local fire department.

After those expenses, she still owed rent for the seven-room building, $1,400 each month.

Katie’s Place daycare sits in a neighborhood off a busy highway just north of Austin, Texas.

Flemings painted the rooms and hung her college and graduate school diplomas on the walls of her office. She brought Katie’s old baby toys from home for the infant room. She covered old bookshelves with contact paper so children wouldn’t get splinters. She advertised her services with signs around the neighborhood and, for a brief time, on the local radio station.

She found her employees by posting jobs on Facebook and Indeed. Several had college degrees, but, at first, the most Flemings could pay them to watch multiple children, nearly all of whom had disabilities or behavioral challenges, was $10 an hour.

One of Flemings’ employees lived at home with her parents. Another lived on government assistance. Flemings’ sister, who worked at her center, had been on a waiting list for child care assistance for nearly a year. Her paycheck from Katie’s Place wasn’t nearly enough to cover child care for her own child, so her 15-month-old came to the center every day. At first, Flemings allowed the toddler to come for free. It was not until midway through the year, when her sister eventually made it off the waiting list, that Flemings began receiving a subsidy for the little boy.

Nationwide, the majority of early childhood educators, particularly educators of color, earn less than $15 an hour. In 2017, the median wage for child care workers in all settings was $10.72, compared with $26.88 for preschool teachers in public schools and $31.29 for kindergarten teachers.

The plight of child care workers nationwide is especially troubling considering the importance of the industry and the impact it has on the rest of the economy. Child care centers allow parents — and especially mothers — to work. In the U.S., 65% of mothers of young children are in the labor force; the labor force participation rate for all mothers with children 18 and under is close to 72%.

The low pay is due to an inherent flaw in the child care system: Early childhood education is “really just not valued in our economy,” said Bethany Edwards, a research associate at the University of California. Even if a provider has a degree, centers can’t charge parents more because parents often can’t afford to pay more, she said.

At Katie’s Place, this reality is evident every day. “All of my teachers are also the custodians and cooks, and it’s like, everyone has to rotate and help each other out,” Flemings said.

These extra demands have made it even more difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers, who could earn twice as much as a private nanny or earn a salary and benefits as a teacher in the public school system. Flemings knew she could rely on a few of her staff members to come in every day, but with others, it was more of a guessing game. She put aside her work as a director to take over classes herself when teachers were absent, and she was quick to jump in and help if a baby needed rocking, a toddler needed a diaper change, or children were arguing.

“A person who has enough education and experience is not going to take the position because I can’t pay them enough and I can’t offer them any benefits,” Flemings said. “You take someone who is completely unfamiliar with the situation and you hope and pray they learn fast and you hope and pray from day to day they’re going to show up.”

Little money, not enough time

Shemonica Flemings, owner of Katie’s Place daycare, talks with a neighbor who donated several old telephones for the children to play with. Flemings credits the generosity of community members with providing food and items for her center that she otherwise would not be able to afford.

Five months after launching her business, Flemings was doing everything she could to hold the center together with the help of her two full-time employees. She woke up as early as 3:30 or 4 in the morning, sometimes getting to the center by 5 a.m. Often, she didn’t leave until after 7 p.m. After Katie went to sleep, she would spend her evenings on paperwork and lesson plans she hadn’t completed during the day.

Flemings’ weekdays blurred into her weekends, when she did repairs at the center, planned lessons for her teachers, swapped out toys, and cleaned. Her husband came along to help so they could spend some time with each other. Some weekends, she provided respite care for a 9-year-old with autism who came to the center after school.

She was finally able to pay herself after the first of the year, a measly $500 for the month of January. The check was far lower than her previous salary as a teacher and a woeful amount considering the 60-plus hours she put in at her center each week. 

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But Flemings was no longer fearful Katie was being mistreated. Katie split her time between a special education preschool program at the public school near her home and at her mother’s daycare. “I was missing a huge chunk of her day,” Flemings said. “And for that, just to be with her, I think the tradeoff is worth it. Because I’m here with my child every day.”

On a sunny February morning, Fleming watched the infant area in the back of the center, which is separated from the kitchen by a high wooden gate. Two teachers were playing with four babies on a big, blue, alphabet-themed rug. Observing her teachers is something Flemings tries to do every day. That morning, she was hopeful that with a full staff present, she would be able to make her rounds, have some time to catch up on paperwork in her office and hopefully file paperwork to receive reimbursements for food through a federal program for daycare centers.

Satisfied with what she saw in the infant class, Flemings walked to her small office, which sits in between the classroom for the older children and the hallway leading to the bathroom and the play room. Before she sat down, she poked her head out to check on a group of children waiting in line for the bathroom. A toddler wandered over to Flemings in stockinged feet. “Where are your shoes?” she asked. The toddler located his shoes and Flemings sat him on the couch in her office and slipped them back on.

The little boy ran off. Flemings took a screwdriver out of a closet and sat down on the ground by a filing cabinet with a large dent in its top. She had purchased the cabinet from Ikea to give her staff members a place to store their belongings during the day, but made the mistake of sitting on the cabinet, which turned out to be flimsier than it appeared. She was about to try to fix it when another boy ran in, his nose dripping with snot.

“I gotcha!” she said, grabbing him and wiping his nose as he pushed away from her, protesting loudly.

Shemonica Flemings, owner and director of Katie’s Place daycare, serves snacks to children outside during a Valentine’s Day celebration.

Ten minutes later, Flemings still hadn’t sat down at her desk to start the food reimbursement process. A toddler needed a diaper change and his teachers were busy taking other children to the bathroom. A child had run into the door frame and needed an ice pack. A little girl wandered into her office and asked for a tissue.

“You look sad!” Flemings said. “What’s the matter?”

The little girl whispered that she missed her mom.

“Do you think you’d feel better if you played?” Flemings asked. The girl shook her head no.

“Do you want to help me make a snack?”

The girl nodded.

Flemings led her around the corner to the kitchen where the little girl climbed up on a stool by the sink and they washed their hands together. She handed the girl some napkins to set out on a table by the kitchen. Flemings walked around the table, neatly placing a handful of pretzels for each child in the middle of each napkin. A few feet away, a group of rambunctious preschool students ran across the center’s entryway and into the front classroom, where a few started climbing on bookshelves while others grabbed toys off the shelves.

The classrooms at Flemings’ center run on tight schedules. Children have breakfast, indoor play time, outdoor play time, a snack, and circle time, followed by lessons in math, literacy, and depending on the day, science or social studies. Children participate in art projects and movement is infused in lessons to help kids burn energy. With her education background, Flemings hopes to provide a high-quality learning environment and diligently plans lessons every day for each age group at her center.

Experts say a high-quality learning environment is critical during these first few years of a child’s life, when the majority of brain development occurs. Infants’ growth can be permanently affected by the environments and relationships they experience. “There is no doubt in the research that the financial instability and insecurity of the providers affects their interaction with children,” Edwards said. “The quality of education is completely dependent on those teacher-child interactions.” 

Efforts to provide quality can be hampered by funding. Flemings wanted to buy a complete, high-quality curriculum to help her teachers structure lessons, but couldn’t afford it.

Lesson plans hang in the toddler room at Katie’s Place. Owner Shemonica Flemings is unable to afford a full curriculum so she and her teachers spend hours cobbling lesson plans together from available resources.

Daycare centers are still waiting to see how states will handle a 2018 boost to the main federal child care grants program. Perhaps that money will trickle down to centers in the form of higher reimbursement rates that might ease the financial burden for daycare workers. After receiving a $230 million increase in federal funds, Texas increased its base payment rates by 2% as of August 2018, the month Flemings opened her center. The state also planned to use the additional federal money to serve an estimated 28,000 children who are on the waiting list for subsidies and increase payment rates for providers who participate in the state’s quality rating system, Texas Rising Star.

Flemings spent months trying to finish paperwork so her center could take part in the ratings system. Her center received a rating of 2 on the 4-star scale; after looking at the requirements for a 4-star center, Flemings was confident she could soon achieve it. The additional money from the program, which would track and measure aspects of quality in her center, wouldn’t be much, maybe just a few dollars a day. But it might allow her to hire more staff members, so she could focus more on the business and less on filling in as a teacher on the many days when staff members are absent or suddenly quit.

‘Helping any way they can’

Despite their own challenges, the parents at Katie’s Place rallied around Flemings and her center. They often brought in bags of beans and loaves of bread to help reduce her food costs. They helped with repairs, which, when unexpected and costly enough, meant the difference between Flemings paying herself that month or going without. “They’re helping any way they can,” Flemings said. “They just don’t have money, and we need money.”

Her neighborhood also rallied around her. Her next-door neighbor donated a stove to the center and regularly mowed the lawn. Another neighbor donated tires so Flemings could build an obstacle course in the center’s yard for children to work on their motor skills and burn off some energy. When a community member noticed the daycare was trying to create gardens in the front yard, she brought seeds so the children could grow plants. The owner of a nearby daycare center took Flemings under her wing, offering advice as Flemings attempted to increase her business.

Flemings felt she was constantly waiting: for more children to enroll, for more time to finish paperwork, for more money to pay her staff “close to a living wage.” She waited to have the finances to build a bigger playground in the backyard and to buy a complete curriculum and some resources to help the children with more severe disabilities.

At the start of her second year, Flemings had to make some tough decisions. She shut down her infant room after realizing she was losing money. Babies cost more to care for than the state would reimburse. Just as she started to feel comfortable financially, a few local schools opened full-day pre-K classrooms, and Flemings lost several of her older kids to those programs.

She couldn’t blame parents for their decision. “If you can get it for free – right? You get a public school with a certified teacher. Why wouldn’t you?”

Each day, she still felt a roller coaster of emotions. On her worst days, she felt trapped.

But she wouldn’t go back to her job as a teacher, even if it gave her more security, more time, and more money. Instead, she focused on making improvements one step at a time. She spent time redesigning her website, adding the tagline “A Hidden Gem” to the center’s logo.

As she trudged forward, she tried to pull together a better semblance of a work-life balance. She stopped coming to the center every weekend to do work. She started making more time to take her daughter to the park or to swim classes. She still dreamed of finding the “sweet spot” where she could hire a director, someone to help her manage the center. She wanted to become nationally certified and get to the point where she could afford field trips for the students. She wanted to have enough in her bank account so she, her husband and her daughter could move into their own house. But Katie’s Place was still surviving on the financial edge.

Every time she got close to a breaking point, her families came to the rescue. In addition to extra food, families brought in bleach, towels, spray bottles and dishwashing liquid when they could afford it. Flemings returned the favor when she could, donating any food left over at the end of each week to families in need.

But, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to spread across central Texas in mid-March, Flemings’ enrollment started to drop.

By late March, just seven of her 22 kids were left. When Flemings went to grocery stores to buy food for those children, she found herself subject to the same purchase limits as individuals and was unable to buy enough. Still, despite the uncertainty, she remains committed to being there for the parents who need her.

“It is definitely a scary time for us,” Flemings said. “We are going to stay open for as long as possible.”

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