N.J.’s child care nightmare could actually get worse. Here’s why.

Smaller class sizes. Stockpiles of PPE. Expensive ventilation upgrades and exhaustive daily cleaning.

The cost to run a child care center will remain elevated as long as COVID-19 safety precautions remain in place, according to new research. And many child care centers face a painful choice: Hike your prices or shut your doors.

“Many child care providers were already struggling to turn a profit before the pandemic, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if some are now forced to raise rates, turn children away, or close their doors,” said Karin Garver, early childhood education policy specialist for the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) and the report’s author.

As the pandemic persists, child care centers across the state are falling into financial peril with limited recourse beyond raising prices for families, many of which have already felt the crushing weight of layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. The NIEER report estimates pandemic health precautions — including lower state caps on class sizes — have increased child care provider costs by up to $69 a week per toddler and $37 a week per preschooler.

The best way to keep child care centers open without soaring prices for parents would be increasing state subsidy rates, said Steve Barnett, a senior co-director at NIEER, which operates at Rutgers University.

Currently, the New Jersey Child Care Subsidy Program pays centers up to $241 a week for infants, $201 a week for toddlers and $167 a week for preschoolers. NIEER’s report suggests per child subsidy rates must rise by up to $40 per week for infants and $63 per week for preschoolers to help child care centers break even.

“It simply will not be possible for most providers to offer the quality care infants and toddlers need to support learning and development without a substantive increase in reimbursement rates to cover higher costs in the pandemic,” Barnett said.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the state should consider raising those rates now before the child care landscape gets worse.

“If we do not act, closures around the state could cause the child care system to collapse once offices begin to reopen and demand increases as more people return to work,” Ruiz warned.

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Adam Clark may be reached at [email protected]

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