Nfld. & Labrador

COVID-19 woes force St. John's daycare to brink of closure, as parents fundraise to save it

The owner of a daycare in St. John's says Friday is its last day as mounting bills and fewer children returning have become impossible to overcome.

Fewer children returning, mounting bills causing major problems, says owner

Crystal Hill, head of Panda Bear Daycare's board of directors, says Friday will be its last day unless something drastic happens. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Barring a minor miracle, Friday will mark the last day children come through the doors of a St. John's daycare, as its head says COVID-19-related complications have made it impossible to operate even as parents rally to try to save it.

"We've tried everything that we possibly can, and tried to take an extra look at things, but unfortunately right now the funds are just not there to continue," said Crystal Hill, the chair of the board of directors for Panda Bear Daycare in Shea Heights.

Several factors have hit the daycare's bottom line since it reopened on June 29 in accordance with the relaxing of public health regulations as Newfoundland and Labrador hit Alert Level 2. 

The centre can look after 25 children full time, but Hill said in the weeks since reopening only 14 have returned, and most of those only part time.

Parents are either reluctant to have kids back in care, or can't afford it as the pandemic has thrown their own finances for a loop, she said. 

While the daycare closed for weeks during the height of the pandemic, the provincial government covered her staff wages, but that didn't stop overhead expenses from coming in.

"It's just been financially difficult, because we do have still all our bills to pay, we still have utilities, we still have rent, payroll," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show, adding one part-time employee has been bumped up to full-time hours in order to meet the new strict sanitization standards.

Those standards themselves — which dictate physical distancing between kids, constant surface and toy cleaning, changes to drop-off and pickup procedures, and others — have also added to the constant stress.

"That first week was chaotic for our staff," she said.

Kearney O'Keefe's three-year-old twins love Panda Bear Daycare, and she's helping fundraise to keep it open. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

As the chaos has sorted itself out, with Hill crediting her persistent staff and patient parents, its financial crisis has only grown.

Hill estimated the daycare needs $20,000 just to keep it alive past Friday.

'A huge loss'

That huge number isn't stopping a number of parents, including Kearney O'Keefe, who sends her twins there.

Panda Bear Daycare has been a Shea Heights staple for nearly 20 years; only last year after its owner retired did it transition into a non-profit centre run by a volunteer board. O'Keefe said high school graduates get photos snapped outside it to show where the beginnings of their education began, and her own kids look forward to going there every day.

We've pretty much begged and pleaded for donations.- Kearney O'Keefe

"It's a huge loss," she told CBC News. "If this place closes down, I'll be devastated."

That devastation is mixed with desperation — and determination. O'Keefe and other parents have been organizing bottle drives, poker tournaments, and asking for change on the roadside, so far collecting $5,600.

"We've pretty much begged and pleaded for donations," she said.

O'Keefe is managing her part between parenting her four children and being the sole breadwinner in her household after her husband was laid off during the pandemic. If the centre closes, she could switch her shifts around to cover a few more hours of child care, she said. But even in that exhausting scenario, she said, she's one of the lucky ones with a little wiggle room, and there are others who cannot cope with the centre's loss.

To that end, "we're not giving up," she vowed.

A new centre?

Hill appreciates the parents' efforts, but acknowledges the deadlines are tight.

Even before COVID-19 hit, she said Panda Bear Daycare was just scraping by. Provincial operating grants and space subsidies have been coming in weeks after payroll goes out, causing an ongoing accounting scramble.

In the midst of it all, she and the board have been working to get another daycare under the Panda Bear brand open, but renovations have suffered delays, first due to Snowmageddon and then the pandemic, and Hill figures it will be about a year before that space is ready,

While the federal government has earmarked some COVID-19 relief funds for daycare spaces in its Safe Restart Agreement, from Hill's understanding so far, that cash will only be available in six to eight months.

While that money may not come in time to save Panda Bear Daycare, she hopes it could go toward speeding up the timelines on the new centre.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Cecil Haire

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