Wilmington Daycares Struggle After COVID-19 Financial Hardship

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Mary Yopp sits on her back porch on a hot September day, sifting through shoe boxes full of photos, 30 or 40 years old.

She remembers the names of many of the kids and teachers in the photos, knows what they’ve been up to throughout their careers, and has even taught some of their kids at the same school where they grew up.

With tears in her eyes, she fondly recalls the memories she left for more than four decades at Park Avenue School.

“We were there for the kids,” she said. “It wasn’t a business or a money maker.”

Before Park Avenue School closed in June, Yopp, now in his 60s, worked 12 hours a day. She and Jennifer Collins, the principal of the school, had not taken a day off for almost a year and a half since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Park Avenue School was a staple for many families in the Wilmington community as former students sent their own children to kindergarten at Yopp Institution and some even became teachers there. But with enrollment declining and the school struggling to retain staff, she said it just wasn’t sustainable anymore.

“My husband and kids said ‘you can’t do this anymore.’ They saw what was happening to me, ”Yopp said. “It was a really, really tough decision.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on child care as many parents have started working from home or removed their children from child care for fear of the virus spreading. USA Today reported that two in five daycares believe they will need to close without further relief from financial pressure and staff shortages.

One in five daycares in North Carolina said it was at risk of closing within six months of a July 2021 survey more than 1,800 centers in the state through the Referral Council and state child care resources.

Sixty-four percent said they had suffered a financial loss and 7% said that while they had not yet suffered a loss, they expected to do so soon. The survey found that the changes during the pandemic that had the most influence on the centers’ ability to operate included a low enrollment rate due to consumer demand and guidelines for health and safety. security, as well as increased personnel costs.

Under-registered, understaffed

Owner and administrator Mary Yopp receives a hug from a Park Avenue school alumnus.  After 45 years of serving preschool and school age students in Wilmington, Park Avenue School closed in June.  To celebrate, current and former teachers and students came on June 11 to say goodbye to Yopp and his school staff at Floral Parkway.  The party gave staff and guests the opportunity to look back on their years on campus one last time. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

For Yopp, this fact was all too real as she saw enrollments drop from 115 to around 20 in March 2020 when the virus began its rapid spread in the community. Enrollment never reverted to what it was before in the 14 months that Park Avenue School remained open after the start of the pandemic.

“It was almost like an overnight thing,” she said. “It was just devastating.”

Yopp isn’t the only one either. The July 2021 survey of North Carolina daycares showed that as of February 2020, 57% of daycares were at or near their desired capacity. A year later, only 38% were at the same level. 30% were at half or three quarters of their capacity, 19% were at one quarter to half of their capacity and 13% were at or below one quarter of their desired capacity.

Maintaining enrollment was a top concern for child care providers, as was the health and safety of staff and children, and staff retention.

Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they lost more than $ 5,000 in the past year, and their biggest expense was staffing while 25% said they closed at some point because of they did not have enough staff – the second most common reason for closure behind COVID -19 exposure.

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Yopp said she always had dedicated staff, some who stayed in school for decades. But she said many of her staff had left to find other jobs that didn’t involve close contact with the children. Others have decided not to work at all after the start of the pandemic.

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She said that within hours of announcing the center’s closure, other daycares started calling her, asking her to recommend them to her staff as a future job opportunity.

Losing staff for better wages

Alison Schon moved to Wilmington to open her own daycare before the start of the pandemic. She previously worked in child care for 15 years near Durham.

Between finding a building to rent for his daycare and further problems due to the pandemic, Schon put his dream on hold and got a job at a local daycare. After a while she said she was desperate to get out. She said the daycare where she worked paid around $ 14 an hour, did not offer her paid time off, and did not offer her benefits such as health insurance.

“I felt like it was really disgusting and I left,” Schon said.

Now she no longer works in a daycare. She earns more money running a childcare service and as a single mother she can work from home and take care of her child. But after a career in child care, her dream of owning her own center “came to Wilmington to die.”

An average living wage in Wilmington is $ 17 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the northern part of New Hanover County, and a one-bedroom apartment in the zip code covering Wrightsville Beach would require a salary. $ 25 hourly.

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As well as having few benefits and no ability to be absent if her child needed to go to the doctor, Schon said it just wasn’t worth it. And she said that wasn’t just the case with her employer – she applied and was interviewed at seven different daycares, and the average bid was $ 14 an hour.

The average salary for a child care worker in New Hanover County is between $ 12 and $ 15, according to the advocacy group. NC Child.

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She said she never had a hard time making a living working at a daycare when she lived in Durham Region. She received paid benefits and time off, and her salary increased over time as she gained more experience. She said after researching and planning a budget to open her own daycare center in Wilmington, she believes local facilities should be able to pay their employees more.

“They should definitely budget to pay their teachers well,” she said. “If they can’t afford to pay their teachers, they can’t afford to open the school.”

Trying to make ends meet

Now, daycares are hoping for financial help to stay afloat. The daycare survey showed that 81% of respondents would be interested in obtaining financial assistance in the form of grants or allowances to cover fixed running costs.

Work is underway at the state and federal levels to relieve some of the financial stress on facilities. Yopp said she got a PPP loan, which kept her facility open for a while. North Carolina also received $ 1.3 billion from the federal government to help cover tuition fees for low-income families and help institutions pay mortgages, improve buildings and other costs related to the pandemic.

In March 2021, Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his budget proposal, which provided for equal pay for child care workers as K-12 teachers and increased child care subsidies for families. low income. Lawmakers approved a revised version of the budget in June.

After 45 years of serving preschool and school age students in Wilmington, Park Avenue School closed in June.  Current and former teachers and students came in June to say goodbye to owner and administrator Mary Yopp and her staff at Floral Parkway School.  The party gave staff and guests the opportunity to look back on their years on campus one last time. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

The Child care SALARY $ The program also provides salary supplements to teachers and low-wage child care providers in North Carolina.

But Schon said she couldn’t afford to continue working in child care in New Hanover County. She hopes she can one day open the daycare of her dreams, but for now, as a single mother, she must do what she can to support her family.

“It’s my career. That’s what I love to do, “she said.” It’s not happening for Wilmington. “

And as Mary Yopp browses souvenir shoeboxes at a preschool that’s more like family, she still wonders if she made the right decision to close after so many months of uninterrupted work to maintain the school.

“I’m sure we’re not the first,” she said, “and I’m sure we won’t be the last.”

Journalist Sydney Hoover can be reached at 910-343-2339 or [email protected].

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