Child care is so scarce in Kate Littlefield’s Vermont community that she joined a wait-list when she was six weeks pregnant. It wasn’t soon enough to find a placement for her infant twins after they were born.
“We couldn’t get in until they were 8 months old,” she said. “That was the earliest spot we could get, and we called every child care center in my area.”
With local child care centers now closed due to the pandemic, Littlefield’s 17-month-old babies have been back at home, where she and her husband are working remotely.
“My kids are coming to meetings with me, which is awful,” said Littlefield, a school services clinician at the nonprofit Howard Center in Burlington, Vermont. “Two babies crawling all over your body — while you’re trying to be professional and trying to pay attention to what people are telling you — is not manageable.”
At the same time, Littlefield has been paying full tuition at Kinderworks, an Essex, Vermont, child care center that closed due to the pandemic on March 18.
Half of that expense has been offset by government child care tuition subsidies. Now, with child care reopening, the subsidies are going away. But the bills are still coming.
“They said that if you choose not to send your child back on June 1st, that you’re expected to pay tuition in full,” she said. Littlefield wants to support the child care providers, who she thinks are excellent. But losing a slot could also mean many more months of at-home care.
Still, Littlefield is concerned that the reopening will overextend her budget. A new contract from the daycare stipulates that tuition must be paid even if the facility is closed for part of the week, a situation that would require hiring a babysitter so Littlefield and her husband can do their jobs.
“We can’t afford to pay them and get care outside of what we’re paying,” she said.
In 2020, the UN Global Day of Parents comes as many parents, like Littlefield and her husband, are stretched increasingly thin.
About a quarter of people have been paying full tuition for child care throughout the pandemic, according to preliminary survey data gathered by Sarah Wolfolds, an assistant professor of strategy at Cornell University. Another 35% of respondents have been paying partial tuition.
Of those who are paying, Wolfolds, who does research in strategy and business economics, said a third are doing it to retain their slots. Another two-thirds said they were paying to cover teacher salaries. (Wolfolds emphasized that her results are preliminary and non-representative. A survey by Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult found that 42% of parents whose programs had closed were making either full or partial payments.)
But even with some money coming in, child care providers are coping with a staggering loss of work and income.
Long before the pandemic, many child care providers operated with thin margins and little financial buffer. That left them with limited reserves for weathering the disruptions brought by Covid-19.
Some are going out of business entirely.
Without significant government support, the pandemic could wipe out nearly 50% of America’s child care capacity, according to a recent analysis by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, which used survey data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
‘Hanging by a thread’
Buried within those statistics are thousands of providers who have built lives around caring for children. For them, closing means losing both a community and a livelihood.
“I am just really sad,” said Ellen Dressman, who for 25 years operated Frog Hollow Nursery School from her home in Berkeley, California. On May 13, concerned that it would be impossible to stay afloat while following new guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dressman sent a letter to families saying she would close indefinitely.
“I have the feeling deep down that we somehow have let you and your children down, and this brings tears to my eyes,” wrote Dressman, whose two adult children worked as teachers at the nursery school.
Decades of experience had brought the family close to many in the neighborhood. One little girl in Dressman’s care was a second-generation student, enrolled by her father, who had also attended Frog Hollow Nursery School as a young child.
In the letter, Dressman explained that even in a typical year, the school’s profit margin of 3% just covered maintenance and repairs. Her budget simply couldn’t cope with extended closures or reduced student numbers.
That’s not unusual, said Katie Hamm, the vice president of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.
“Most child care providers barely take in enough to cover their expenses,” she said.
“When you take away some of that revenue, because they have to close their doors or because they’re serving fewer children, or they have higher expenses to respond to the pandemic, there’s no way to provide child care and be in the black.”
In March, when the National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed child care providers about how long they could withstand a closure, more than 6,000 responses from across the country showed how precarious the situation is.
Just 11% said they could stay in business through an indefinite closure without additional support.
And while many child care providers are reopening in the coming weeks, that’s unlikely to resolve the crisis.
As part of reopening, the CDC recommended that child care providers operate at a reduced capacity and institute new hygiene guidelines, measures that experts said would slash already narrow margins.
“We had a child care industry that was kind of hanging by a thread, that wasn’t built to sustain any interruption,” Hamm said. “This has been an interruption of catastrophic proportions that has just kind of thrown the industry into a tailspin.”
What it means for US child care
For child care providers and the families they serve, losing a single nursery school can be enormously sad. On the national scale, the losses add up to an urgent crisis.
Long before the pandemic began, there was a nationwide shortage of child care.
In 2018, the Center for American Progress found that 51% of people in the US live in what they term “child care deserts.” That refers to a census area with over three times more children than licensed child care enrollment slots.
The shortage is not distributed evenly. Hispanic and Latino people make up 57% of those living in child care deserts. Rural families, and people living in the lowest-income neighborhoods, are also among the hardest hit.
By combining the results of the NAEYC survey with existing data on child care availability in each state, CAP predicted that Covid-19 could lead to the permanent loss of 4.5 million child care slots.
Prior to the pandemic, there was a nationwide ratio of 2.61 children for every child care slot. With the projected losses, there would be 4.16 children for every slot.
The picture is far worse in some places. Montana and Nevada, predicted to be among the hardest hit by shortages, could have more than nine children for every child care slot.
What are we doing to fix it?
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dedicated $3.5 billion to child care. Experts said that sum just scratches the surface.
“It was a first step, but it did fall short in terms of the enormous need,” CAP’s Hamm said.
Other relief measures proved hard for providers to access. Many child care providers are very small businesses, Hamm said, without the existing banking relationships that might have helped secure Paycheck Protection Program funding from the Small Business Association.
“I can think of three or four people who got a PPP loan,” agreed Kim Kruckel, the executive director of the Child Care Law Center. “I probably talked to 100.”
The dire need for child care as the country copes with Covid-19 requires a massive intervention from the federal government, she said.
“Fifty billion dollars is the number that people are saying,” said Kruckel, who estimated that would keep the child care industry afloat for roughly five months.
On May 27, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced the Child Care is Essential Act to the US House of Representatives. It would add a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund to the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant. US Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state introduced a Senate version.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has our nation on the precipice of an economic catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen, and child care providers are facing financial ruin,” DeLauro said in a press release about the bill. (It’s not the first attempt to increase child care funds. On May 21, Republican US Sen. Joni Ernst and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler offered a resolution calling for $25 billion in child care aid in the next Covid-19 relief bill.)
But many child care advocates emphasized that while an immediate lifeline is needed to help families weather the crisis, simply returning to pre-pandemic norms won’t ensure sufficient resources for America’s children.
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Some, however, hoped the disruption would demonstrate that lasting change is both necessary and possible.
“We’re all really going to benefit when we stick up for the most vulnerable people first,” Child Care Law Center’s Kruckel said.
“We’ve already shown that as a nation we can rise to the occasion,” she said. “We have shown that we really can think in new ways.”