For the time being, the children of city employees, hospital staffers and other essential workers are still romping around Little Angels Daycare.
The childcare fixture near the intersection of South Abilene Street and East Exposition Avenue in Aurora has weathered multiple waves of the pandemic since March, along with government restrictions and parents’ anxieties about keeping their kids at home.
“This year, to be honest with you, is one of the toughest years I’ve ever had,” said Little Angels co-owner Frank Omair, who immigrated to the U.S. after living in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines. He runs the daycare with his wife, Gigi.
Other Aurora daycares quickly shut their doors when the new coronavirus pandemic swept into the region in March. In April, Little Angels remained open but with fewer and fewer parents dropping off their kids, threatening the business’s ability to keep the lights on. Schools had closed, leaving essential workers with the impossible choice of staying home with their young children or venturing out to earn their paycheck — while braving the pandemic.
While the pandemic has been brutal for daycare business, it has attracted a fresh look at the importance of affordable daycare.
By one estimate, from the Arapahoe County Early Childhood Council, more than 40,000 kids under age 5 called the county covering much of Aurora home in 2019. Of those, one in six kids was impoverished. That’s before the pandemic put many families in dire straits.
Typically, up to 150 kids would be running around Little Angels on a given day, Omair said. That number quickly fell to about 25 kids.
Fewer kids means less money. Early on, Arapahoe County subsidized the operation, buying some time.
And after the first wave, Omair said the establishment was able to house about half the usual amount of children while successfully staving off an outbreak. He’d limited groups of kids to a maximum of 15 in one room at a time with a teacher.
Like many other struggling Aurora businesses, Little Angels received a Paycheck Protection Loan from the federal government. According to federal records, Little Angels took in a loan between $150,000 and $350,000.
“Without the help from the government, I would have been closed already,” Omair said.
That money was quickly spent on payroll, electricity, rent and other expenses, Omair said. A Republican-controlled Senate has since deadlocked conversations over a second aid package.
“That money has already been done,” Omair said. “So right now, we are just doing it day-by-day to be honest with you.”
Omair also contacted his landlord for payment relief, but to no avail, he said.
And with the number of new coronavirus cases this month worse than ever before, business has again started to dwindle. On a given day this week, no more than 40 children were corralled at Little Angels. Many were children of hospital staffers, nurses and janitors, he said.
Omair isn’t sure how long Little Angels will be able to stay open. It’s a depressingly familiar comment from Aurora’s small business owners, especially restaurants recently forced to close indoor dining completely.
Sarah Brown, a spokesperson for the Arapahoe County Early Childhood Council, said many other childcare institutions are living on the edge, too, although she isn’t aware of any closing long-term.
“They’re struggling to keep going right now,” she said.
A report from Early Milestones Colorado and the Bell Policy Center published this summer found that nearly 10% of childcare providers in Colorado have vanished in the wake of the pandemic. Overall enrollment to those providers has decreased by 30%.
Funding through and after the pandemic will be a major piece of recovery, according to the report.
The county and its Early Childhood Council are propping up daycares with CARES Act grants. It’s been particularly hard when owners are told they have to slash capacity for mandatory quarantines, and many staffers have already exhausted their paid leave benefits, she said.
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If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255).
This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. The intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal.
Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.