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A child care center that’s operated rent-free for a decade at city-run Elmhurst Hospital abruptly announced plans to close — leaving parents and staffers scrambling.

The Little Elms Child Care Center initially told parents last week they had until March 27 to make other arrangements. Amid an uproar, the deadline was extended to June 30.

Parents, some of whom work at the hospital, say they were blindsided. They’re trying to untangle the circumstances behind the impending closure of one of the neighborhood’s few child care options.

Little Elms accepts infants up to Pre-K aged children, with monthly rates hovering around $2,000 for child care five full days a week.

A Feb. 3 email sent to parents from an executive at the Bright Horizons, the center’s Massachusetts-based operator, doesn’t offer a specific reason behind the “difficult decision” to shut its doors. Bright Horizons notified employees the same day and offered staff $1,000 severance payments, documents obtained by THE CITY show. Little Elms counts about 10 employees, according to former staffers.

A spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals, which runs Elmhurst and other public health facilities, said that despite lengthy negotiations, a renewed contract could not be reached.

Sarah Morelli, a 37-year-old Woodside resident and midwife at Elmhurst Hospital, said the on-site child care and reduced fees for hospital workers were key factors in her decision to “take a big pay cut” to work there.

“I was able to breastfeed him every lunch break until he was a year old,” Morelli said of her son Khalil, now 17 months. “It was fantastic to have him right there, it made a huge difference for my family.”

Scrapping the Deal

Parents hope to revive negotiations, but emails obtained by THE CITY paint a complicated backstory.

In them, Elmhurst Hospital CEO Israel Rocha told parents the hospital does not charge Little Elms any rent or utilities — in exchange for discounted tuition for city hospital employees.

Letter from Elmhurst Hospital CEO Israel Rocha to families regarding day care center closure.

Over the past decade, however, the number of scholarships dwindled, Rocha wrote.

And during the most recent round of contract negotiations, Bright Horizons asked the hospital to pay up to $50,000 a year in exchange for the hospital’s demand to set a minimum number of scholarships for employees — in addition to the free space, according to Rocha’s email to parents.

“As a city-funded hospital, it is very difficult to justify this arrangement and provide this level of funding to a for-profit organization that is not willing to work with us to ensure that the service is available to all employees,” Rocha writes.

“Therefore, we are unable to continue the service.”

A spokesperson for Bright Horizons declined to comment on the allegations detailed in Rocha’s email, instead telling THE CITY that the company was “sad to leave” and would help families “navigate” the transition.

Bright Horizons has notified parents that it will assist them in securing child care at another of its centers, although the only other location in Queens is four neighborhoods away in Long Island City.

A spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals declined to comment on the payment Bright Horizons allegedly requested from the hospital.

Starting Tough Search

Katherine Sydenham, 34, of Jackson Heights, said she doubts Bright Horizons will be able to guarantee spaces for children elsewhere. Her family visited and chose Little Elms before their daughter was born, and enrolled this past December, a month before she was to start, to ensure a spot.

“You plan so far in advance because there aren’t very many day care options in Jackson Heights and there’s kind of competition to get your child in,” said Sydenham, who called the closure announcement “completely demoralizing.”

“As a parent you feel like you did what you were supposed to do,” she added. “You make a lot of decisions based on the pre-planning you did…. Your whole life revolves around reliable child care.”

Parents noted there are only a handful of day care options in the neighborhood that offer services for infants, and even fewer that have national accreditation like Little Elms.

A December 2019 report by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York found that child care enrollment for 3- to 4-year-olds in Elmhurst and Corona was marginally below the city average of 62%.

The report’s authors said that data about private enrollment for children under 3 was not publicly available.

Some parents said they were looking beyond Queens for a new day care center.

“It’s a major, major inconvenience exacerbated by the dearth of day care options in the area,” one Jackson Heights parent, who didn’t want his name used, citing ongoing discussions about relocating to another of Bright Horizons’ centers.

Morelli said the convenience of Little Elms made a big difference for her, her wife and their son.

“We have more time at home with our family, and not just stuck in traffic or the subway,” Morelli said. “And that’s what life’s about, being home with your family.”

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