– It’s been half a year since April Westman opened a second location of Aunty’s Child Care, and she was supposed to finally take a vacation to celebrate seven months’ hard work spent getting her business up and running in a region in dire need of more day care.

Instead, she’s putting in 12- and 14-hour days to fill in for staff that she had to lay off. She’s pouring over grant applications during her free time, hoping to find something — anything — that might help keep Aunty’s afloat now that more than a third of Westman’s 69 families have pulled their children from her care.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, northeastern Minnesota faced the largest shortage of child-care providers in the state, requiring about 4,500 additional day-care slots to cover demand in the region, according to a 2018 study. As the pandemic-fueled loss of clients threatens existing providers’ survival, concerns for the industry’s long-term sustainability are raising alarm bells at all levels of government.

“If providers are shutting down and not able to reopen, that just makes the problem worse for us longer term,” said Tony Sertich, president of the Northland Foundation. The philanthropic organization gave $125,000 in grants to regional providers who applied on a first-come, first-served basis; that fund was exhausted just a few hours after the application opened.

The state is currently encouraging licensed providers to apply online for grants from Child Care Aware of Minnesota, the nonprofit administering the $30 million approved by the Legislature as part of a larger aid package. Child-care programs could also receive federal funding from the $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump last month.

But some are worried that’s not enough to bail out all the providers that need help. And the first round of state grants won’t go out until mid-April, forcing day cares to stretch already thin margins even more as they wait in uncertainty.

Only eight of 26 Duluth providers surveyed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children between March 12 and March 22 said their programs could survive a closure for more than two weeks. Across Minnesota, just 23% of respondents said the same.

“I’m more worried about how long this is going to last,” said Courtney Schwarzbauer, a licensed provider who cares for 11 kids at her Proctor home. “I can make it a month with less income. But if this lasts any longer, I have to reconsider charging families to hold their spots or getting a different job.”

$390 monthly fee

Rebecca de Souza has quickly learned to squeeze in as much work as possible during 2-year-old Franka’s afternoon nap.

“She and I can’t be in the same place without her climbing over me,” de Souza said. Her daughter was enrolled at day care at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where both de Souza and her husband are professors, but the center closed when campus shut down.

The couple considered sending Franka to another day care as they continue to work full time from home. “But I just got scared,” de Souza said. “I’m hearing these messages about how it’s risky — not just for my little one, but also she poses a risk to everybody else who needs to be there.”

Instead they’re paying $390 a month to hold their spot at the day care, which typically has dozens of families on its waiting list, and figuring out how to factor caring for their toddler into their workdays.

Many parents are in similar situations, keeping their kids at home to prevent them from catching or spreading the virus. Others have been laid off and are cutting back on expenses.

“It’s just exhausting,” said Lyanne Valdez, an anchor for CBS 3 Duluth who is balancing care for her 19-month-old with her regular reporting and editing duties. She pulled her daughter from day care last week after the facility said the parent of a child who works in a Duluth hospital tested positive for COVID-19.

Valdez is also continuing to pay tuition to hold her day care spot for the time being. She wants to support the center, and she will need a place where little Charlee can go once her work routine is back to normal.

“And anyone in the Northland with children knows how bad it is finding day-care spots,” Valdez said.

Helping front-line workers

Providers are being stretched in two directions, reckoning with plummeting enrollment while also being asked to provide services to parents on the front line of the coronavirus response. Aunty’s opens early for nurses and doctors working at Essentia Health or St. Luke’s, the two hospitals that serve as the region’s medical hub.

Beth Prokott, a hospital nurse at Essentia and mother of three, had to keep her kids at home last week after the 16-month-old had a fever. She was working 12-hour overnight shifts and barely saw her husband, who’s also a nurse.

“By the last day, I was so tired I could barely drive home,” Prokott said. “I felt like not the best mom, nurse and definitely wasn’t taking good care of myself during a time when I really need to be.”

Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order in March ordering Minnesota schools to provide free child care for kids of emergency workers old enough to attend. But for families like Prokott’s, with two little ones and no extended family in the area, day care providers like Aunty’s remain a crucial part of her daily life.

Westman has pledged to stay open for essential workers through the pandemic, even if she is only able to watch a handful of children herself. She’s emotionally worn out from receiving dropout notices, sometimes without the chance to say goodbye to “the little person who we’ve seen grow and develop and change.”

She’s also worried about the future of her center and her industry, which could create a gaping hole in the region’s economy should the coronavirus slash the already limited number of providers.

“What I don’t want to happen,” Westman said, “is another child care pandemic after the COVID-19 pandemic.”