Out of Work

Day care director: 'I'm struggling—and it's not because I'm not a good business person'

Catherine Lieberman with two of her students.
Source: Catherine Lieberman

This is part of CNBC Make It's Out of Work series, where real people tell their personal stories of what it's like to be underemployed during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the story of Catherine Lieberman, director and co-owner of Bell's School for People Under Six in Fletcher, North Carolina, as told to Megan Leonhardt.

You keep hearing people say we're all in the same boat with the pandemic. Yeah, well, not really. We may all be on the same ocean, navigating the same storm, but there are people in luxury yachts. And some of us feel like we're in Uncle Johnny's boat with one oar, worrying about whether or not there's a hole in the bottom.

That's where I'm at. I'm struggling. And it's not because I'm not a good business person. I am.

I'm 44. I have some background in business and administration and I've been in the child-care business for 26 years — since the day I turned 18. I've been the director and co-owner of Bell's School for People Under Six in Fletcher, North Carolina for the last five years, and I was a teacher here before that. 

But child-care programs don't operate with a whole lot of capital, and that's not due to lack of business savvy. A lot of times it's because parents can only afford to pay so much. So you may only have one or two weeks or maybe a month of capital to run on.

If your program has to close for 11 weeks, 12 weeks, 20 weeks, or you have reduced income during that time, it's financially devastating. And mine is a little better off than other programs — I did have a little bit of savings, because I pinched every penny and tightened our belt when we could. 

But here we are, going on 11 weeks closed and we're struggling. In fact on April 1st, Bell School's 42nd anniversary, my co-owner, Isabel Taylor, and I had to make the tough decision of whether to stay open or possibly close permanently.

We chose to stay open.

We came to the conclusion that we could not ethically close the school when we had the families of doctors, nurses, EMT, grocery store and gas station employees that needed us. We will find a way to make the numbers work. 

But the result has been that I've lost over half my business. Before Covid-19 hit, the school was at capacity; we had 40 children. The first week of April, I had six, and they weren't attending every single day. Today, I have 16. 

What 'making it work' looks like 

Even with revenue coming in from families who have returned, I'm still struggling to pay the mortgage, to pay the electric bill, to keep the water running, to keep supplies flowing, to find all the cleaning supplies that I need to to just stay open.

And I haven't taken a paycheck now since March 16. I don't feel like I can.

I had to furlough 11 of my 13 employees in order to stay open because I can't afford to pay them. It was devastating emotionally, because for me it was very personal. 

I'm the one who had to look my teachers in the eye and say, 'I can't protect your job. I can't protect your health because I can't find the sanitation supplies that I need for a large group.' That was a scary, frank conversation to have.

I had saved some money to replace the tiles in some of the classrooms because they're cracked. Instead I'm using that money to pay the remaining staff's salaries.

Bell's School for People Under Six typically has about 40 children enrolled. But with the coronavirus pandemic, there are less than 20 attending now.
Source: Catherine Lieberman

Plus, almost everything costs a little bit more and is harder to find.

The other day on Walmart's app, they had Lysol spray, and I thought: "Great! I can get four." Well, it turned out the app hadn't updated yet and they were out, so they substituted Fabreeze. I appreciate it, but it's not going to clean the cots or clean the tables.

All it takes is putting one foot in front of the other and not being overwhelmed by the despair of the situation.
Catherine Lieberman
Director and co-owner of Bell's School for People Under Six

But we're committed. Even if it goes on the credit card.

In fact, I just used a credit card that my husband and I had finally paid off to buy hand soap and to get basic supplies. It was really tough because my husband and I have worked so hard to get where we are right now. We had paid off both cars and had paid down our credit cards. We paid off probably over $20,000 worth of debt.

But we've pulled ourselves out of some debt before and we can do it again. All it takes is putting one foot in front of the other and not being overwhelmed by the despair of the situation.

Putting new practices in place at school 

We are also dedicated to doing the right thing for our children, and that means making changes. Number one, we've dropped our group sizes — there are less than 10 children and a teacher in a classroom. 

We're also lucky it's summertime. We're opening windows and spending a lot of time outside. We have the philosophy here that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes. That means we change clothes a lot, but that's just kind of what it is.

We have some new procedures for drop-off and pick-up that have helped a little bit too.

I follow as much of the guidance to help reduce spread as I can, but there is no way to physically distance all the time. As one of my teachers said, "If they're crying, I'm going to pick the kid up." 

A teacher at Bell's School helps a child build a puzzle. The North Carolina-based school celebrated pajama day on Friday, May 29, 2020.
Source: Catherine Lieberman

We also do masks as much as possible even though the state of North Carolina is not requiring the children wear them. (We're not doing masks at all with children under 3 just because there's a higher risk of SIDS and suffocation.)

Isabel has made a bunch of masks for the children and teachers to use, and extras if we need them. 

You need to change them often, however, and you need to wash them. It's a little difficult — I don't have laundry facilities on site. And if a family sends 10 masks, I have to send those 10 masks home to be washed that night, and I just have to trust that it's happening.

Uncertainty looms large

When it comes to the future, I'm not terribly confident. I was in February when my classes were filled for summer and for fall. I actually had a waiting list. 

But I'm worried because we don't know when or if a second wave of Covid-19 will hit and what that could look like. I'm a little nervous about picking up new families if they're not going to stay with us, because turnover can be expensive and it affects the classroom environment. 

Bell's School is a year-round preschool serving children ages 2 to 6.
Source: Catherine Lieberman
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