Slow bleed: Three stories of Colorado child care providers trying to survive

After a frustrating search for child care in her rural Colorado town, Samantha Wilson left her office job to open a child care center. Two months later, the pandemic hit.

Across the state in the suburb of Aurora, Latanya Austin watched helplessly last summer as parents tearfully pulled their children out of her in-home child care business because of lost jobs or fear of COVID-19. 

In Montrose, the large size of Chrissy Simmons’ child care center, which serves about 150 kids, didn’t protect her from the pandemic. Enrollment plummeted and the center nearly went out of business.

Today, almost a year after the coronavirus arrived in Colorado, the doors of all three businesses remain open. A raft of federal, state, or local programs helped, the latest of which is the state’s $35 million Child Care Relief Grant Program.  

Some child care providers didn’t make it. Exact numbers are hard to find, but a survey by the group Early Milestones Colorado last summer found that about 10% of Colorado providers were still closed at the time and 23 reported they would definitely or probably shutter permanently.

Nearly 4,100 licensed child care providers will have received the child care relief grants, which range from $900 to $34,270, by the end of February. The money is  part of a $300 million pot allocated to help small businesses and families during a special legislative session last fall.

The relief grants represent the latest puzzle piece in the effort to keep child care providers like Wilson, Austin and Simmons afloat during a precarious time. Their stories highlight determination amid a barrage of financial and emotional struggles, but also the long, uneven road to recovery. 

She opened her center in a child care desert, then came the pandemic

Samantha Wilson’s son had gone to three different in-home day cares by the time he was 2.

Two of the providers had moved away and one shuttered her business to take a new job. Wilson was frustrated with the lack of options in her western Colorado city of Craig — population 9,000. Even the tiny Wyoming ranching town where she’d lived previously had a child care center, she said. 

“How does Craig not have this?” she wondered.

Children play with soapy water at Yampa Valley Kids. (Courtesy Samantha Wilson, Yampa Valley Kids)

In May 2019, Wilson, who worked in the Moffat County Department of Human Services at the time, decided to start her own center. She immediately enrolled in classes to get the certification she needed to be the director. She opened Yampa Valley Kids on Jan. 7, 2020. In March the pandemic hit, and her enrollment plummeted from 35 children to 10. 

It was a mind-boggling development for a brand-new center. 

But Wilson vowed to plow ahead as long as she had the money to keep the lights on. She received a forgivable federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to help pay her staff, and signed up to offer child care for essential workers through a special state program. That got her through the worst of it, and today the center is just about full, with a waiting list for some age groups. The children of health care workers now make up 60% of her student body, Wilson said. 

Wilson plans to use her $8,000 state relief grant to cover the cost of extra staff during certain times of the day. During non-pandemic times, she needed fewer employees to cover opening at 6:30 a.m. and closing at 5:30 p.m. But now, because of stricter rules about mingling children from different classrooms, she needs more staff in the building at those times and more money to cover their wages.

“It just is helping us fill those gaps,” Wilson said of the grant. 

Next on her wish list is a different grant from the state — also approved during the special legislative session last fall — meant to help child care providers expand. Wilson, who currently works at a desk in the center’s hallway because of space constraints, plans to add another classroom. 

This industry veteran has top ratings. Now she’s hunting for a second job.

Latanya Austin has run a licensed child care out of her Aurora home for the past 20 years.

She used to care for 12 children with the help of two employees. Now, she cares for just four children by herself. She let her helpers go last summer. 

Things weren’t too bad in the spring. She participated in the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative, a program to care for the children of essential workers, and the generous reimbursement rates helped tide her over. But when that program ended after a couple months, things got worse. Austin’s regular families began to leave in June and July as parents lost jobs. One owned a bakery that closed. Others began working from home, keeping their children with them. 

“They were really trying to hold on,” she said. “Some of them were literally crying ... but they couldn’t afford it.” 

Austin, a single mother to a 5-year-old son, doesn’t think she’ll ever close her business, which has a top state rating. But she’s considering a part-time job administering medication to group home residents to help make ends meet. 

In the meantime, Austin soldiers on each day with her four young charges — collecting them curbside each morning so their parents don’t have to come into the house. After spraying disinfectant on their shoes and helping them wash their hands, it’s the usual routine of playing and learning. This week’s theme is Black history, with lessons about the African diaspora and heroes like Rosa Parks and cowboy Nat Love.

Things feel different these days, she said. Still fun, but quiet.

Austin is grateful for the $990 state child care relief grant she received late last month. Her bank account was running low at the time so the timing couldn’t have been better. But $900 is about what she gets monthly for one child and her enrollment troubles are much bigger than that. 

Austin hopes some families will come back as vaccinations ramp up this spring. Until then, she’s applied for partial unemployment to help cover some of her lost income.

“I pray they’ll approve me for that,” she said.  

She refused to close, but was ‘tear-jerkingly’ close to disaster

Last March, when Colorado schools and businesses were closing like dominoes falling, the Montrose Police Department called Chrissy Simmons to check on her plans for closing the child care center she leads, Maslow Academy. 

“I said, ‘We’re not closing,’” she recalled.  

And she never did, aside from one day during the summer when the whole center closed for deep cleaning after a child was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Without good quality early childhood teachers and programs, your economy is stuck,” Simmons said.

Still, it’s been a struggle, with the pandemic shrinking enrollment, but not most fixed costs. 

“It’s a long, arduous, slow bleed,” she said.  

A child care staff member at Maslow Academy in Montrose sits with a young child. (Courtesy Chrissy Simmons, Maslow Academy)

Late April was Simmon’s lowest point. The highly rated center was serving just 30 children, less than a quarter of her normal enrollment, and running at a loss. Although she didn’t lay off any employees, all of them had to work reduced hours. 

“We almost didn’t survive; we were tear-jerkingly close,” said Simmons. “I remember breaking down in my office talking to some of my board members saying, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do.’”

What saved the center, one of two in Montrose, was the forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan Maslow Academy received last spring, Additional financial help came from a host of local and statewide groups. 

Enrollment finally started to rebound late last fall, and now Maslow Academy is up to 144. 

Simmons plans to use the $32,000 state child care relief grant to cover a host of expenses, from the cost of new toys to the gap between what the state subsidy program pays her to serve low-income children and her actual operating costs. Currently, she serves about 80 children who qualify for subsidies — a population that’s grown since the pandemic hit.

The state grant, she said, will help “seal up some of those wounds from the last six months.”