UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: This story is updated from an article originally published April 19, under the headline, “RI home-based child care providers close under pandemic’s hardship” to clarify data received from the Department of Human Services. A list of child care closures shows 72 family-based providers in Rhode Island closed since March 2020. According to DHS, because of administrative issues the list included names of providers not actively serving children. However, DHS could not provide details on which providers or how many providers were not operating prior to the pandemic. DHS further clarifies that many of the listed home-based closures were for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. The Public’s Radio regrets any confusion this may have caused.

For 15 years, families in the neighborhood near Roger Williams park on the south side of Providence knew Gertrudis Pena’s house. The multi-family building also served as a private child care, where Pena would teach up to half a dozen kids in her home for upwards of fifty hours a week.

Parents could drop off their children as early as six o’clock in the morning and pick them up as late as six o’clock in the evening. During her years working her day care, Pena said she felt valued. 

But when the pandemic began, Pena recalled she was immediately fearful, speaking in Spanish from her dining room table with two reporters from Public’s Radio, this April.

“I love my work, but family is more important than work,” said Pena, who was already over 70 and she shares her house with her children and grandchildren. “I told my husband, ‘I think we need to close because we are in danger with this virus.’”

Pena was one of a community of women running child care out of their homes, in largely Latino communities across Rhode Island. According to a 2014 workforce study, 58% home-based child care providers in the state self-identify as Latina, and more than a third speak Spanish only. 

“They are beacons in neighborhoods,” said Dulari Tahbildar, who works primarily with these providers, administering training and professional development as a Rhode Island-based program director with the SEIU Education and Support Fund, a nonprofit organization which is independent of the Service Employees International Union. 

These providers often serve families who may have limited English and need extended hours because they are working essential and frontline jobs. 

“Often families choose family child care [also called home-based], because of the cultural connection that a family may have...in terms of the foods that they eat, the languages that they speak, the experiences that they share,” Tahbildar said. 

Pandemic increases costs

Local advocates like Tahbildar, say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptionally hard on home-based providers who, unlike most of their counterparts in child care centers, work largely alone, for many more hours each week, with more unpredictable pay.

A Rhode Island Department of Human Services survey of child care providers conducted in October, reaching about 40 percent of providers, found respondents reported cost increases associated with pandemic safety measures and financial harm from extensive quarantine periods. Through the fall, providers also reported declining enrollments. 

“It's been very challenging for them to negotiate both their desire to reopen and have a sustainable business with managing their own concerns about their own safety,” said Tahbildar. “[And] the financial burden of keeping their doors open, so the increased costs of purchasing cleaning supplies, the hit on their incomes, because of the loss of clients.”

The same October survey by the Department of Human Services found that just 13 home-based providers reported receiving PPP loans, about four percent of respondents.

This may come down to a general unfamiliarity with the systems, said Tahbildar.

“You have to meet people where they are,” Tahbildar said. “They may not have had the training to have at their fingertips their budget statement that separates their personal and their professional expenses or the training to really understand how to keep all their records in a way that when it comes time to applying for something, they have all that information at the ready.”

Some providers close doors

Advocates worry the impact of the pandemic will ultimately affect availability of home-based child care, especially in predominantly Latino communities.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, 90 center and home-based child care providers closed their licenses in Rhode Island, according to data provided to the Public’s Radio by the Department of Human Services, which licenses providers.

More than three quarters of the closures were home-based providers. And according to DHS data, as of March of 2021, none of the closed home-based providers were listed as having plans to open. Many were in urban areas, including Providence. 

But DHS officials say the data is inconclusive because of administrative issues when the licensing process transferred in 2019 from the state Department of Children Youth and Families to DHS. According to DHS spokeswoman Alisha Pina, the list includes an unknown number of providers who were not actively serving children. Further, DHS says more than 60 percent of home-based providers listed reflect closures for reasons unrelated to the pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic, the state mandated the shutdown of all child care providers, from March into June. After the closure, DHS staff spent months developing safety plans, contact-tracing protocols, and other COVID-19 mitigation policies, as they worked to get providers to reopen, said Department Executive Director Courtney Hawkins.

“When I look at our closure rates, and understanding the flaws in that data, I'm actually quite surprised that we got as many sites open as we did,” Hawkins said in an interview in April. Hawkins added that overall, more than 80 percent of all providers have reopened since the shutdown last year. 

According to DHS, as of early April, the state has approved licenses for thirteen new child care providers; nine of them are home-based. 

A vulnerable system

Still, Hawkins acknowledges the pandemic hit a sector that has been chronically struggling with low wages and lack of funding.

“In child care we've seen, it's unbelievably essential to our economy, it has been historically nationally underfunded at a level that requires federal intervention, that the workforce is not paid at the rates that they should be for the work that they're doing,” Hawkins said. “And those factors, when you come into a pandemic, or any kind of crisis, make it vulnerable, but I think our results in Rhode Island have actually, it just to me shows the commitment of the field.”

Any closures of home-based child care providers over the last year would contribute to a steady decline in such providers in the last 15 years. 

According to data compiled in 2020 by the nonprofit organization Kids Count RI, from the state Department of Children Youth and Families, and the Department of Human Services, the number of licensed child care slots in home-based providers has declined by 63% since 2004.

“We've lost more than half of our family child care slots over that period of time. And they continue to go down during the pandemic,” said Leanne Barrett who works on child care issues for Kids Count RI, during an interview this April. “It’s not a good thing.”

The decline follows national trends, and according to national data compiled by Kids Count RI, and is attributed to “rising costs, long hours, isolation, and low income” among other issues. 

“You're a single person providing care for six children for 50 hours a week,” Barrett said. “And you were charging the average tuition, you would make $15.20 an hour. So that's not very much and it's a hard job. And it's an isolating job.”


State distributes new federal aid

For the past year, the state of Rhode Island has funneled millions of dollars of federal pandemic aid into the child care sector. 

The state boosted payments to all child care providers accepting kids whose families qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program. DHS also administered millions of dollars in grants for child care providers, to pay for COVID-19 related expenses.

In March, the state began distributing a new round of federal aid totaling about $18 million, to Rhode Island child care providers, both in-home and in centers.

The money is part of $23.9-million made available to Rhode Island as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Hawkins said the money is being distributed on a grant basis, with awards ranging from $3,000 to $50,000.

“The program was designed to be incredibly flexible, to get revenue out to the child care community,” said Hawkins. “And hopefully, it will serve as a model for the almost $60 million that we received as part of the rescue plan that was targeted for similar activities.”

The applications for the new grant program opened at the end of March, and the state has already begun to disburse money, including to 130 home-based providers, according to Pina.

In the case of Gertrudis Pena, the money didn’t matter. After the shutdown, Pina said DHS staff members reached out several times to Pena, but Pena told them she decided to retire. 

In April, speaking with reporters from the Public’s Radio, Pena said that the pandemic, her age and underlying health concerns pushed her into a choice she had not planned so soon.

Pena, who is now 73, has decided she won’t reopen, but she often thinks of her students.

“The moments when I remember them, I miss them,” Pena said. “They made me laugh. I enjoyed it so much.”

Pena’s been closed since March of last year; in December, the state officially closed her license. 

Pearl Marvell contributed reporting and translation for this story.

Correction: A previous version referred to Dulari Tahbildar as working for the SEIU. She works for the SEIU Education and Support Fund, which is a nonprofit independent from the SEIU itself, and does not speak for the union.

Correction: A previous version of this article, incorrectly wrote that the child care provider licensing process in RI transferred from DCYF to DHS in 2020, the process in fact switched in the fall of 2019.