“My business needs support to survive the pandemic,” says California child care provider

This is the story of Ellen Dressman, owner and director of Frog Hollow Nursery School, a large family child care in Berkeley, California. Dressman’s story first appeared on EdSource.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Frog Hollow Nursery School in Berkeley to close its doors March 16. As its owner, I thought we would reopen soon. We did not.

Just two families were interested in having us care for their children because those parents were essential workers. We decided against reopening because of the risk this might pose to our own family members. Instead, we chose to shelter at home but, in our case, our home was the child-care center.

During this time, I was in a state of shock. Frog Hollow income was nil. Parents donated a small percentage of their April and May tuitions. That was a huge relief. But by early May, we realized we would not be reopening anytime soon. So amid tears I sent a letter to the Frog Hollow families announcing that we would be closed until further notice.

We are in a holding pattern now, struggling to survive.

We deserve some support. Frog Hollow and other family child care centers have cared for our community for decades but our community has not cared for us in our time of need.

I started Frog Hollow in my 30s and grew it while studying weekends to earn my master’s degree in human development and early childhood education. In my 40s, I earned my child development program director’s state permit. In my 50s, I led a family child care movement to challenge an attempt by the city of Berkeley to fine programs like mine for not having costly business licenses even though many of us had been told we did not need them.

In 1998, I began living at the house from which Frog Hollow operates. My family child care business helped me purchase the house in 2001. I was proud of this accomplishment, and still am. It has been a joy to have a home for my family and a nourishing second home for hundreds of young children from Berkeley as well as Oakland and Richmond.

It is hard to separate Frog Hollow and its fate from that of my family.

My 39-year-old daughter and my 35-year-old son are Frog Hollow’s two full-time teachers. My daughter lives at the house with my son-in-law and my two granddaughters.

In 2015, as I turned 60, I began to take on more of a director’s role while allowing Frog Hollow to continue under my son’s and daughter’s teaching leadership. I was happy to pay my teachers a decent salary with benefits and offer the children a great educational program. When parents could not afford care, I offered tuition subsidies each year to help make it work for them.

In 2017, I took on a second job to begin saving for retirement. Then the pandemic struck.

By the end of March, my granddaughters were at home tackling their online school assignments, my daughter was applying for unemployment, as was my son, who lives elsewhere in Berkeley. My son-in-law-law was working full time from home.

Now my daughter and I are discussing the possibility of opening a small version of Frog Hollow, or closing our business altogether. My daughter is living at the Frog Hollow house, paying the rent, which covers the mortgage, out of her unemployment benefits. I am using my retirement savings to repair and maintain the house. My son is considering relocating away from the Bay Area.

Other child care centers have reopened out of necessity, but with lower enrollments and higher Covid-related expenses. Programs with child-care slots subsidized by the state still receive payments, so they have been able to continue.

In an ideal world, child care — both subsidized and private pay, tuition-based programs like Frog Hollow — would receive state financial support. Child care providers are the backbone of a working economy. When this pandemic is done, our community will be looking for us, but without financial support to see us through, many child-care programs will fold.

I have gone from feeling like a smart family businesswoman to somewhat of a failure. But I know the real story of Frog Hollow can be found in all the years we were open, not in its closure during the pandemic. So many years of quality child care, so many happy parents and thriving children who have learned healthy social skills and made lifelong friends. We are truly a success story. It just doesn’t feel like it today.