Farley-Bouvier calls for investments, not cuts, to early childhood education and care

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PITTSFIELD — "How do you run a business with half your income?"

That's the question state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier wondered aloud after virtually meeting on Wednesday with nearly 30 directors of Berkshire County early childhood education centers and family day care programs.

Under the state's current timetable, child care businesses could reopen their doors beginning on June 29. But many of those centers face significant challenges, including inadequate staffing and financial burdens stemming from mandatory COVID-19 guidelines.

Under new safety guidelines for capacity and social distancing — which include a 10-to-1 student-staff ratio for preschool and school age groups — early childhood centers and day care providers will only be able to welcome back a fraction of children and families into their facilities. In some cases, centers will only be able to operate at half capacity or less.

Susan Robert, executive director of Kidzone Child Care and Educational Center, said based on these requirements, the center will only be able to provide education and care for 75 children a day, though it typically has the capacity for 177 kids. The result: a significant decline in revenue.

And Gina Blake, vice president of Berkshire County programs for 18 Degrees Family Services for Western Massachusetts, said that while about 80 percent of its families would like to return, the early education and care program would only be able to serve half of its previously enrolled families.

"We're looking at a $50,000 to $80,000 loss [of revenue] per month," she said.

Farley-Bouvier, echoing sentiments outlined in an op-ed that appeared in the June 15 edition of The Eagle, said she would lobby the federal government to pass what's known as the HEROES Act for relief funding and ask the Legislature to tap into $1.5 billion from its so-called Rainy Day Fund to balance the fiscal 2021 budget. She would also seek to raise revenue through progressive proposals like closing corporate tax loopholes and considering borrowing funds to balance the budget.

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Funding challenges

Amy Carpenter, child care director for the Southern Berkshire Child Care center in Ashley Falls, said she doesn't plan to reopen until the end of August, noting her private pay program does not currently qualify for public aid. "I am already starting in the negative as I am paying unemployment right now."

Donna Lamke, the assistant director and billing specialist for Lenox Children's Center, said her site, which can serve up to 83 children a day under normal circumstances, is in a similar situation. Though it can accept families receiving subsidized care voucher, the center currently doesn't serve any, meaning they are also less likely to receive any public assistance. Though the center received support through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, those funds cannot be used to cover equipment and maintenance costs associated with reopening.

"If we cannot sustain ourselves, we can't provide care," Lamke said.

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Center directors also said some of their employees have had to quit because they can't find their own child care.

Members of the group told Farley-Bouvier that while the early education commissioner in previous conference calls referenced the availability of grant funding for reopening, no specific information on the source of funding or application has since been released.

"We've spent thousands and thousands on supplies," said Ann Rekeda, child care director and owner of the for-profit Tot Spot in Pittsfield, of the center's efforts to buy cleaning supplies and other equipment to reopen on June 29. "I'm waiting to see the money that's going to come pay my American Express."

Farley-Bouvier said there is a legislative working group in the House focused on addressing early childhood education and care issues.

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Transportation a burden

Beyond funding, one of the top issues discussed was transportation, which is provided by larger centers like Berkshire County Head Start, Tot Spot, Kidzone Child Care and Educational Center and is a service subcontracted by others.

Rekeda said based on the suggested guideline of only allowing one rider per seat in every other row, the center's three-row vans can only transport one child at a time; it's considered unsafe for young children to sit in the row directly behind the driver.

"Some kids won't get picked up until 10 or 10:30," Rekeda said. "By the time we get them here we'll be bringing them back home.

"We're definitely not going to be able to provide transportation," said Donna Denning, child care manager for Head Start. "It hurts because about 75 percent of our families rely on transportation."

Farley-Bouvier noted some new funding was being made available for early childhood transportation via Berkshire Community Action Council, which received funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

BCAC Executive Director Deborah Leonczyk confirmed that the agency's board approved in its budget last week $100,000 in block grant funds "to help support transportation for low-income kids" as a stopgap measure, meaning the agency would offer the transportation funds should state or federal funds not be able to cover the costs.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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