The COVID-19 pandemic has left an immense impact on child care centers. In Florida alone, 57 percent of child care providers were closed as of mid-April primarily due to low enrollment and revenue. And many were struggling financially long before the coronavirus swept the country.
However, some child care centers are able to successfully navigate these challenging times. How do they do it? By combining a strong business sense with the confidence that the current climate is an opportunity for growth.
The Early Learning Group (ELG) based in southwest Florida, and operated by Rachel McIntyre, is an example of a child care center that is flourishing. Founded in 2003, ELG operates three centers and its 85 employees serve 490 students. Rachel is planning to expand in the next year by starting two more programs that will add another 190 children.
In this success story, Rachel shares her advice on how other child care centers can successfully weather the current market conditions and come out the other side even stronger.
Take it slow and don’t make hasty decisions
When everything seemed to be changing at light-speed during the early stages of the pandemic, many child care centers closed their doors. Rachel took the opposite approach. “I felt it was important to slow down and not make hasty decisions,” she says.
“In late February through early March, when the pandemic was in its early stages, we weren’t sure how things would pan out. Many daycare centers made some very abrupt decisions like closing without understanding their status as a provider. Not long after that, child care centers were deemed essential services and allowed to stay open. The centers that closed missed out on a business opportunity to serve families in need.”
Reach out often to regulatory organizations
Rachel realized it was critical to stay in constant touch with regulatory agencies, because standards for child care centers were changing so quickly. “We regularly contacted the Florida Health Department, the Department of Children and Families, and local officials to stay up-to-date. It’s important to understand that today’s standards might be replaced with different ones tomorrow, and you need to be aware of them. We contacted the agencies multiple times to be sure we had the latest, most accurate information in order to make good business decisions.”
Be flexible with your staff
Many child care centers laid off or furloughed employees in order to reduce expenses. That measure wasn’t necessary for Rachel’s business, however. “For some of our employees, staying home right now is a better option. It worked out well, because our enrollment matched the number of staff who could work.”
She continues: “Our employees are our greatest investment, so we didn’t want to sever our relationship. Instead we gave them a list of virtual in-service training opportunities they can do at home so they’re prepared when we return to full-scale operations. We want to find options that work for everyone.”
Communicate often with parents and teachers
Communicating regularly with teachers and parents is critical. Rachel’s supervisors have brief, daily meetings with teachers that last just five to 15 minutes, and are a key method for keeping them informed and offering support.
Rachel reaches out to parents regularly, too. “We use Procare’s parent engagement solution to keep them up-to-date, especially when it comes to communications that are only relevant to our enrolled families. Not everything is meant for broadcasting on Facebook. Plus, Procare’s solution delivers messages right to parents’ mobile phones so our communications aren’t lost in the shuffle, and they’re easy to read.”
Getting financial support: Don’t give up until you get a hard no
Rachel’s advice for daycare centers looking to re-open soon is to aggressively seek out financial support, if needed, and stay in close contact with lenders. “It’s very important to be aware of new funding opportunities,” says Rachel. “I predict there will be other financial support programs, similar to the PPP, coming down the pike. Those funds are going to go to the child care owners who are in constant communication with the organizations managing the programs. Be sure you’re at the top of their list and don’t give up until you get a hard no.”
Assess how your competitive landscape has changed
Given the upheaval in the child care industry, some of your competitors may decide to close their doors permanently, which gives your daycare center new opportunities for increasing enrollment.
“You can regain lost ground very quickly if your competitors close,” says Rachel. “A child care center near one of our locations probably won’t re-open, because the owner was considering retiring, and the pandemic convinced her that she wants to be done. That’s an opportunity for us to build a relationship with her and let her know that her students are welcome at our center.”
Stay positive and open to new opportunities
The most important factor that helps Rachel’s business thrive is her willingness to see these challenging times with a positive perspective. “I think this situation provides a lot of opportunities if you’re open to them. By slowing down and setting priorities of what’s most important to you, your families and employees, you’ll have better clarity and peace of mind moving forward. It’s important to not see the current market climate as a disaster. It’s simply a change, and we need to look for opportunities in it.”
To view the webinar that features Rachel’s COVID-19 story, click here.