Crystal Redner closed the child care center she helms in southeastern Colorado in late March as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. Soon, she pinned her financial hopes on reopening as part of a state program to serve the children of essential workers. 

On Tuesday, she got bad news. Although the state and her own board OK’d the plan, the board of the nursing home with which her center shares a building rejected it. Now, she’ll stay closed for the foreseeable future, with her 11 employees — already making so little they qualify for Medicaid — collecting unemployment.

Like Redner, child care providers across Colorado and the nation are facing a bleak financial future — one they fear could break the backs of their businesses and the child care sector itself if government leaders don’t take more aggressive steps to help. 

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said he’s concerned the industry — where providers already operate on the thinnest of margins — could collapse. 

“I’m very worried about the state budget picture,” he said. “There’s not, in a state like Colorado, a path to rely on the state general fund to stand this sector up.”

In March, state officials released a grim economic forecast that predicted at least a $750 million hit to the state budget as a result of business closures and unemployment associated with coronavirus. 

Jaeger said the lion’s share of funding will have to come from the federal government — over and above the $3.5 billion recently allocated for child care nationwide under a recent coronavirus relief package. Colorado is slated to receive around $41 million of that money. 

There’s also the $10 million Colorado COVID Relief Fund. State leaders have pledged to prioritize emergency child care providers for grants up to $25,000 from that pot, but advocates say philanthropy won’t sustain fragile programs long term. 

In the best of times, providers rely on a patchwork of funding sources, ranging from parent tuition to public preschool dollars and state child care subsidies for low-income families. But the coronavirus has upended the usual formula, reducing revenue from parent tuition and state subsidies since many centers are now closed or experiencing high absence rates.

Some programs, like Summit County Preschool in the mountain town of Frisco, anticipate they’ll be able to weather the current financial storm and reopen this spring or summer. Kim Theller, executive director of the center, said she’s using reserves she and her board set aside a few years ago to continue paying her 25 employees for a couple of pay cycles and refund tuition to families.

“We are probably one of the more fortunate centers right now” she said, “With God looking out for us … we’ve been able to establish these savings pockets for times like this.” 

Late last week, Theller also jumped to apply for a forgivable $170,000 small business loan that will allow her to continue paying her staff when the reserves run out. Experts have said the first-come, first-served loans — part of federal coronavirus relief efforts — could be used up quickly, but Theller is hoping she makes the cut. 

“I don’t want my employees to worry about money because they don’t make a lot as it is,” she said. “I’m trying my best to protect them.” 

In the meantime, her teachers continue to connect with the 88 children they serve as best they can, sending home activity ideas and checking in with parents. Abby Akers, a toddler teacher, planned to hold a video storytime Wednesday with the one age-appropriate book she happened to have in her home, about an old lady who swallowed a snowball. 

Redner, for her part, isn’t sure what the future holds for her county-run program, Bent County Early Learning Center. Even before the pandemic hit, there was talk that a local private prison might close, a move that could spell financial disaster for the county and maybe the center, too.

The decision by the nursing home board to nix the center’s proposal to reopen for essential workers also cut off a potential lifeline: comparatively generous state reimbursements for emergency child care. Normally, the center brings in only about $22,000 a month from all funding sources, including tuition from about one-third of enrolled families. The state’s rates, in comparison, could have yielded up to $29,000 a month and, Redner said, a bit of breathing room. 

For now, the center’s three-dozen youngsters, 28 of them children of essential workers such as nurses, medical assistants, and prison guards, are home with friends, neighbors or harried parents. Besides worrying about the improvised child care, Redner fears she could lose one or two of her five lead teachers — a scarce commodity in rural Bent County. If they seek other jobs to make ends meet during the crisis, she won’t have the staff she needs to reopen. 

Redner, who still heads to her empty child care center each afternoon, is waiting to hear if she’ll get a grant from the state’s COVID relief fund. She’s also working on her application for the forgivable small business loan and brainstorming alternative locations for reopening to essential staff. Maybe the elementary school down the road, with its four-classroom room early childhood pod, she wondered aloud Wednesday afternoon. 

Stay tuned, she said. The story is “to be continued.”