"It was always a weak industry, and it was very vulnerable," said Jamie Moon, president of the Institute for Child Success, a Greenville-based policy and research organization. "The pandemic has only served to highlight that vulnerability, and it's really a shame because it's such a critical part of having a robust economy."
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In May 2020, ICS released a report on survey findings of child care providers from across South Carolina on the economic impacts of COVID-19 on their operations. The sector has already experienced approximately $40 million in lost revenue, and about half of all centers have closed.
How might COVID-19 be impacting child care providers differently based on where they operate? We are pleased to release an accompanying analysis of rural vs. non-rural county responses in order to better explore these differences.
Refining an entire county as “rural” or “not rural” is difficult. We chose to focus this report on those counties which are not among the most populous and also do not contain one of the most populous cities in the state, as a rough proxy and so removed: Charleston, Greenville, Lexington, Richland, Spartanburg, and York.
The full report has deeper analysis and accompanying graphics but high-level, there were a number of differences which have implications for how home policymakers, providers and philanthropists approach the challenges in the sector:
Different provider types have different needs. Survey respondents were largely group child care providers for both rural and non-rural respondent counties – about 75% of respondents in either group. However, in sixteen counties, family child care providers make up one-third or more of the total providers. Family child care providers, particularly in rural counties in which they are more common, may face different issues not fully captured in these responses.
Operating status varies by community: As of April 15, 43% of rural county respondents were “open for all families,” compared to 36% in non-rural areas. There could be a number of reasons for this difference. Providers in rural counties may be more likely to be among a smaller number of providers in a community and feel an obligation to continue providing services. Additionally, COVID-19 cases are drastically different across the state, and 5 out of 6 of the “non-rural” counties were all reported to have higher numbers of potential cases. Stakeholders may make different decisions about operations based on community spread. As conversations in the state shift to “reopening,” we must remember that the number of providers who had continued operations differs by community type and thus may have different challenges and needs.
Centers are not operating at capacity, which means tuition payments are down in all communities
Across all respondents, there was a capacity to serve 6,666 children across infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children for afterschool care; however, only about 2,022 children across all ages were still attending – about 30% of actual capacity.
The attendance rate was relatively similar between rural and non-rural settings for infants and toddlers. However, these numbers differed significantly for older children. For preschoolers, just 26% of those in non-rural counties were still attending versus 38% in in rural counties. For school-age children in non-rural counties, providers were serving just 12% of their capacity for this age range, compared to 41% for rural providers. It is difficult to explain these differences. We know that rural county providers were more likely to remain open. This may speak to a continued need for child care in the community; a concern among providers to avoid closure for fear of not reopening; or a perception that participation is less dangerous in the counties we have defined as rural which, on the whole, have lower COVID rates.
Providers in all locations are concerned about the cost of closure and reduced operations. Overall, one-third of respondents report they could not financially weather a closure of any length; another one-third are unsure how long their facility can handle a closure.
Respondents in rural counties were much more likely to report their business could not handle any closure. Just 31% of the rural respondents were sure they could weather a closure of at least two weeks; 40% reported they could not afford to close at all. These data were requested as of April 15th – a month later, the prognosis for these centers may be even more dire.
We asked about financial losses from March 15th to April 15th, and for projections from April 15th to May 15th. These results were startling. The average financial losses reported by respondents are depicted below:
|Time Period||All Providers||Rural Counties||Non-Rural Counties|
|Mar 15 – Apr 15 Average Loss||$22,033||$15,571||$26,595|
|Apr 15 – May 15 Average Expected Loss||$31,070||$15,538||$42,235|
Average losses are greater for non-rural county respondents. What explains this difference? Non-rural respondents have, on average, about 20% more capacity than rural respondents. Thus, non-rural providers budgeted for tuition coming in from more seats but have a lower percentage of students attending. While some centers may still be collecting tuition from families, many respondents’ families have reduced their payment amounts while centers are closed, or families simply cannot pay and have stopped sending their children or are not paying to “hold” a seat. But, even the lower losses of rural county respondents can be devastating to the long-term health of the provider.
As South Carolina and other states move toward “re-openings,” safe child care is essential to the workforce. Policymakers and local communities should explore every option to support child care providers, including securing personal protective equipment and other items which are in high demand (an issue discussed in our full report). Many providers are facing huge financial challenges to maintain their operations and may be unable to reopen without financial support from outside sources.
 Responses were not received from centers in the following counties: Abbeville, Anderson, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Calhoun, Cherokee, Chester, Chesterfield, Colleton, Darlington, Dillon, Edgefield, Fairfield, Greenwood, Hampton, Lancaster, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, McCormick, Pickens, Saluda, and Sumter.