Child Care Providers Reopen But Struggle With Lowered Capacity

Jun 9, 2020

Updated  6/10/20 5:10 p.m.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services updated its classroom capacity guidelines Tuesday back to pre-pandemic ratios which are:

  • For three-year-olds, 12 children to one teacher
  • For four-year-olds, 16 children to one teacher
  • For five-and-over, 20 children to one teacher

Many child care providers are now reopening as more parents return to work. However, the added restrictions for social distancing have limited the number of children they can accept back. 

Sunshine School in Kailua reopened on June 1st. The school is complying with the state Department of Human Services' guidelines of 10 people per room.

“Each classroom, which we have three, has nine students and one staff member,” said Sunshine School Director Julie Kalakau. “So total enrollment right now is 27 and normally we're at 49.”

The school did not have enough capacity to take back all the families that it served before the pandemic.

“I had a couple of Zoom meetings with the families and just kind of said, 'We're gonna open up and use the honor system. If you got called back to work or if both parents are not working in the house, we want to give priority to those, versus the ones that could still work from home,'” Kalakau said. 

“Then we started from scratch. We put everything on our website and had it first come, first serve. Honestly, they're all enrolled here. How do you restart? They all deserve a spot.”

While enrollment numbers have droppend, expenses have not.

Kalakau said Sunshine School is costing more to operate because of the sanitation efforts. As a result, the school has had to raise its tution.

Child care advocates worry that many facilites are in the same situation as Sunshine School and will raise tuition, making child care in Hawaii even less affordable.

“We were in a bad spot before, right? We didn't have enough child care spaces pre-pandemic,” said Kathleen Algire, director of public policy and research at Hawaii Children’s Action Network, the child-advocacy nonprofit.

“Of the kids that are under six, we had enough DHS-regulated child care seats to serve 25% of those, right? So not enough by any means.” 

Hawaii Children’s Action Network is advocating that federal funds go directly to child care providers. 

DHS announced that it is seeking applications from child care providers needing funds to cover the added costs of health and safety precautions. The application deadine is July 31st.

At Little Seed Early Learning Center, Vi Verawudh, the managing director, hopes the funds will come soon. Little Seed was open though the stay-at-home order to serve children of essential workers. It has just started accepting all students.

Little Seed’s enrollment is at about half of its usual capacity, but like Sunshine School, operation costs have gone up.

“I'm happy to hear that there's money out there for us to apply for,” Verawudh said. “But you know, applying takes time too and I hope it's a pretty fast process because we can't wait six months. We're not going to be here by the end.”

Some child care providers have not reopened at all becasue of the economic impact of COVIID-19. 

Kalakau worried about the parents trying to return to work but who will be unable to find a spot for their children.

“There's some schools in Kailua that haven't reopened,” she said. “That's a lot of seats, even if all of our schools in Kailua are full, there's still a waiting list. So losing any one of the sites or half a site like us, it's going to put a huge burden -- where are the children going to go and be cared for?”

Kalakau and Verawudh hope that by fall, they will be able to expand to accommodate more children.

In the meantime, they will be trying to serve the children they can, as safely as possible with more sanitation, wearing masks and social distancing between classrooms.