Published March 26th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Lee’s Kinder Academy has always been more about passion than profit.
Sheri Lee, owner of the Northland business, worked three decades in a variety of child care settings. But she never found an operation that emphasized the kids as much as she liked.
So six years ago, she opened her own early childhood education center, which operates in a shopping center along North Green Hills Road. It serves kids ages 8 weeks to 5 years old.
Lee does not take a salary, and her nine-person staff includes a chef that prepares breakfast and lunch. Rent alone costs $6,000 per month.
Her touch-and-go finances took a hit last year with a $34,000 loss. But business was looking promising enough in the first few weeks of this year that Lee could entertain the thought of being debt free for the first time.
And then, Lee said, COVID-19 “decided to arrive and burst my bubble.”
Lee’s biggest problem is not so much that parents now working from home don’t need her service. It is more that parents — whether they are still going to the office or not — are afraid of sending their children into a group setting in the midst of a pandemic.
Child care operators may not be the first people who come to mind when considering small businesses. The travails of restaurateurs and their workers have certainly gotten more attention during the coronavirus outbreak.
Yet the federal Office of Child Care counts more than 233,000 child care centers around the country. In Kansas and Missouri alone, they are responsible for nearly 20,000 jobs.
As the pandemic spreads, authorities are recognizing the critical role child care centers play in allowing front line staff, such as health care workers, to go to work. Emergency “stay at home” orders carve out the centers as essential businesses.
Even in normal times, child care centers are critically important to households where both parents work. They are so important that, just last month, a congressional subcommittee held a hearing to explore solutions to the spiralling costs of child care, a problem particularly acute for the working poor.
Most worrisome for many is the potential fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. Where will working parents turn when it is time to return to their jobs, if their daycare provider has closed?
The National Association for the Education of Young Children, which represents center’s like Lee’s, said a survey found that nearly half of the 6,000 respondents would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without some sort of public support.
One of the people working to prevent such closures in Johnson County is Eldonna Chesnut, director of the child care licensing division within the Department of Health and Environment.
She and her staff are working to provide child care operators with the cleaning supplies they need to maintain a safe environment for the kids. The county has approximately 900 licensed providers, and her division is also working to connect these folks with financial assistance to weather the storm.
The loss of a few, if any, clients could easily spell doom for these operators.
“This is their income. This is what they do for a living,” Chesnut said. “It is just a really bad situation right now.”
Loosened state regulations allow Lee to exceed her licensed capacity during the crisis, but even if she could drum up business that way, she can’t risk alienating her current clients. They don’t want her adding families they don’t know during this health scare.
At the same time, her dedicated customers are providing a critical lifeline. Crucially for Lee, eight families are continuing to pay even though they are keeping their kids at home.
Without that revenue, Lee said, she could not stay open: “There is just no way.”
If anyone can identify with Lee’s plight, it’s Jessica Oakley. She’s a small business owner herself, operating a 10-person company in the Crossroads that develops solar energy projects for schools, governments and other commercial clients.
She brings her 4-year-old son Callan to Lee’s Kinder Academy. Unlike his two sisters, Callan is rambunctious, and she said Lee has been wonderfully attentive to the extra assistance Callan sometimes needs.
There is no way she could concentrate on her work and take care of Callan while she and her employees work from home during the coronavirus outbreak.
Asked about how she feels about the stress Lee is enduring, Oakley paused.
“It’s like having a child you can’t help,” she said. “It’s frustrating, because you don’t want to see anybody you care about not do well, especially when they have no control over their situation.”
Zander Groves, 5, is also one of Lee’s young charges. His parents, Alicia and Shawn Groves, started him at Lee’s Kinder Academy about four months ago.
Zander is used to hanging around older boys — his dad coaches youth baseball — so Alicia and Shawn wanted him to get used to playing with kids his own age before heading off to kindergarten.
The parents are thrilled with their experience at Lee’s center. Zander’s attitude at home has improved, he’s made friends, and he has learned a lot, too.
Should Lee have to close, it would be tough on them and other families.
The questions, Shawn said, would be: “What do we do now? Where do we send our children now?”
As far as emergency help for parents, the YMCA of Greater Kansas City is operating child care centers at facilities in several locations around the metro area. The service is available for K-6 children, and sites are in schools, community centers, or Y facilities.
Meanwhile, governments at all levels have pledged to help child care operators and all sorts of other small businesses make it through the coronavirus slowdown.
In Kansas, Chesnut said the Department of Health and Environment is making special allowances for providers to expand services for kids that are out of school.
Missouri has done the same thing, along with extending benefits availability through its child care subsidy program. Missouri will also issue emergency 45-day licenses to new child care providers that can pass health and safety inspections. The application is here.
The federal stimulus package also includes funds for small businesses, and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has proposed an emergency $500,000 small business assistance fund.
Lucas’ plan could be approved as early as this afternoon as the City Council discusses next year’s budget.
One big benefit of city-level assistance, the mayor said in an interview, is that it can be distributed quickly without the red tape or delay from other governmental sources up the chain.
That would certainly hearten Lee, who has had her share of bouncing back and forth between bureaucracies early on in this crisis simply trying to get clear answers on operational questions.
Lucas also favors grants to these financially stressed small businesses.
Many government relief efforts, such as those through the Small Business Administration, come in the form of loans, and that’s a problem two ways: they might take months to come through; and businesses with cash flow issues could find it difficult even to repay low-interest loans.
As a hub for all things entrepreneurial in the region, KCSourceLink has compiled a list of resources available for businesses hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Three quarters of respondents to KCSourceLink’s online survey have indicated a need for financial assistance to get them through this crisis. About 15% said they are in danger of closing their doors for good.
Through the years, Lee’s accountant has asked why she continues the fight. She has always parried the inquiry by talking about the kids, but nowadays, she admitted: “I am starting to ask myself the same thing.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205