Israel's Private Day Care Centers Face Huge Bills, Angry Parents Amid Coronavirus Crisis

One operator says she's heard of 'parents ambushing the teacher outside her home and demanding that she return the checks'

Nurit Bar-Or at her daycare in Carmiel.
Rami Shllush

When the coronavirus forced private preschools and family day care centers to close, both their operators and the parents who use them were left in a quandary. While day care centers supervised by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry were told to return parents’ payments for the latter half of March and not to charge parents for April, private preschool owners were left to make their own decisions, having to balance their financial problems with the pressure from frustrated parents.

Some of the teachers have already told parents they won’t charge them for April and promised to return payment for the two weeks in March, while others aren’t running to give refunds on the grounds it would force them into debt or even put them out of business. Others have taken a middle ground, under which parents will make partial payments that would allow for maintaining the preschool during this troubled time.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

“Yesterday I told parents that I won’t take payment for April,” says Nurit Bar-Or, who, together with her husband, Yaniv, runs a private preschool in the northern town of Carmiel. “Until now the parents were being patient and giving me a chance to assess the situation and make a decision.” She hasn’t decided yet what to do about March. “Maybe it’ll be a refund, or maybe I’ll add days during the summer vacation.”

Bar-Or is in touch with preschool teachers all over the country, and she says she’s heard about “parents who ambush the teachers outside their home and demand that they return their checks. It’s not supposed to be that way. I understand that everyone is concerned about their own pocket and their own family’s fate, but meanwhile I’m hanging here totally uncertain about the future of the preschool. People tell me, ‘Take a loan from the state,’ but how will I pay it back?”

“I’m in an existential panic,” says Tova Aharon, who operates preschools and afternoon day care centers in the community of Matan in the Sharon region. She manages a compound of preschools with 115 children and 20 employees, in a building she rents from the regional council for 16,000 shekels ($4,450) a month plus VAT. “I’ve applied to stop paying my rent for now, but I haven’t gotten an answer,” she says.

Aharon, a mother of four who’s expecting her fifth child, is concerned that she won’t be able to recover from the crisis after it’s over. “There are so many expenses – food that was ordered in advance, presents for the holidays and birthdays that I bought in advance … and I still have to pay my workers their March salaries.”

“I’m exhausted,” says Keren Calderon, who operates a private preschool in Holon. She’s concerned that even if the crisis ends soon, she won’t be able to close the financial gap that’s opened up during the past few weeks.

“We operate on a steady cash flow, and that’s how we’ve moved forward over the years,” she explains. “I can’t raise my price every year, because these are long-term relationships. Registration for next year is already closed, so I can’t raise my price, reduce the number of staff members or take on more children. I have almost no room to maneuver.”

Calderon is frustrated by the public discourse on the issue. “Even before the crisis you would hear things like, ‘Preschool prices are highway robbery.’ Anyone who says things like that has never seen our financial statements. The outlays for a private preschool are enormous; no one’s making millions here.”

Bar-Or is also upset by the public’s response. “I would expect the state not to stand me in front of a firing squad of parents,” she says. “The coronavirus crisis will pass, but the crisis of confidence with the parents will be more difficult. When the corona is over the parents will need me, but if I can’t maintain things, there won’t be where to come back to.”

Calderon’s preschool, which has 60 children and 17 women on staff, operates in a large structure that she rents from her parents for 20,000 shekels a month, which all goes to pay the mortgage. “Presumably, since it’s my parents, we will try to come to some solution regarding that payment,” she says. But there are other expenses – property taxes, employer’s payments that she continues to pay for the workers she’s put on unpaid leave, along with crafts materials and gifts for Passover that she had already ordered for the children. There’s also maintenance of the preschool equipment. “The wear and tear in a preschool is very high,” she says.

Calderon is a member of the association of private preschools in Israel, which has several hundred member preschools, and which at the end of last week decided that members should not charge parents for April. Calderon had already informed parents that she wouldn’t charge for April “because I understand the families’ distress, and this isn’t the time to confront people.” But the checks for March had already been deposited, and she told parents that after the crisis, she would let them know how she would make it up to them. “I don’t want to say, ‘I’ll give you back days in August,’ because who knows what will happen until then?” she said.

Last week there was a meeting between representatives of the union of private day care centers in Israel, which has some 200 members, and representatives of the finance and social affairs ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office to try to find ways to keep the private day cares solvent. The union was asked to supply financial information so that the treasury could work out a solution.

Meanwhile, teachers are trying to maintain contact with the parents and the children. “I send the kids videos every day, and the parents send me videos,” says Aharon. “I usually spend nine hours a day with these kids; suddenly there’s a feeling of emptiness.”

She adds: “The connection with the children was cut suddenly. We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.”