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Child Care in Crisis: Can Biden’s Plan Save It?

In suburban Ohio, a decades-old child-care center that was thriving before the pandemic shut its doors for the final time in August.

In Michigan, a child-care facility has been running at less than half its pre-pandemic capacity, bringing in less income, even as the costs of Covid-19 safety protocols continue to add up.

In Virginia, a child-care center for the children of essential workers found itself taking in the community’s school-age children, but without the kind of guidance from the government that schools get.

In California, the owner of an in-home child-care center lost 70 percent of her clients and has burned through her savings to stay open, leaving her about two months away from having to close permanently.

These stories, from four different parts of the United States, aren’t isolated pockets of struggle. They are emblematic of a larger problem that has been widely acknowledged by people from the Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell to Amy Schumer: America’s child-care industry is in crisis.

Initially, as parents pulled their children out of child-care centers in the first months of the pandemic, revenue plummeted. Then, as child-care centers opened back up, the burden of safety for the community’s children — including, in many cases, schoolchildren whose parents couldn’t help them with remote learning — fell on providers that were already struggling to survive on thin budgets.

About 360,000 child-care jobs simply vanished between February and April last year because of pandemic lockdowns, said Jessica Brown, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina. Employment in the industry in February this year was down by 16 percent compared with a year ago. In contrast, overall employment fell by 6 percent in that same time.

This scarring is likely to outlast the pandemic. “When the economy does worse, the child-care industry declines,” said Professor Brown, who published a study on the industry in January, “but when the economy improves, the child-care industry doesn’t recover as quickly as the rest of the economy.”

And yet, the industry’s health is interwoven with the health of the overall economy. Before the pandemic, almost 90 percent of parents in dual-income households took advantage of some kind of child-care arrangement, according to an analysis by the Department of Education. Many leaned on a family member who could stay home with the children, or on a nanny, but almost 60 percent turned to a center-based care arrangement. So for parents to get back to work post-pandemic, child-care centers need to exist.

“The biggest fear is that the supply’s not going to be there when the market’s ready to recover,” said Rhian Allvin, chief executive of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an advocacy organization. By the time a center is back up and running, parents may have made other arrangements — whether that’s grandparents stepping in or mothers quitting their jobs — trapping many day-care centers in a vicious cycle.

At the root of this crisis is America’s relationship with child care itself. Unlike every other developed country, the United States has never, with the exception of a few years during World War II, treated child care as an essential service. Since at least the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan effort to implement a universal child-care system because it had what he called “family-weakening implications,” the industry has been cast as a personal choice — more specifically, a mother’s choice.

“We have never valued the work that goes into caring for our families — we’ve never accounted for it, we have made it invisible and have always taken for granted that women will shoulder the responsibility,” said Ai-Jen Poo, senior adviser for the nonprofit Care in Action and an expert on the care economy. In fact, the whole industry “is still often referred to as ‘help’ as opposed to a ‘profession,’” underscoring the overall perception that caring for children is not a job of any real value, she added.

And the federal government has largely stayed out of the matter.

In that vacuum erupted a fragmented and sprawling patchwork of day-care options, essentially small businesses, that are simultaneously expensive for parents (care for one infant can eat up almost a third of median family income) and yet persistently low-paying for their predominantly female workers (the median hourly wage for child-care workers is $11.Though many child-care centers receive public funding, most receive the majority of their funding from tuition fees. Only families in the lowest income brackets receive government subsidies, but how those are meted out depends on state and local governments. And while public schools receive funding from the government for every student enrolled, day-care centers get government support only for the exact number of days a child attends. If a child is out sick, for example, that’s lost income. So, during the first months of the pandemic, when parents pulled their children out of child-care centers, many lost out on thousands of dollars of income.

And labor is the biggest cost for a child-care center because of the number of teachers needed per child. The standard across the country for high-quality care is one teacher for four toddlers. The older a child gets, the fewer teachers needed. So, for 100 toddlers, a center needs 25 teachers, all working over 10 hours a day.

In order to make even a slight profit, enrollment has to remain high and extraneous costs have to stay low. It’s a precarious model that even in the best of times wasn’t very stable.

When the pandemic hit, there were mixed messages on whether providers should stay open, with rules shifting day by day and state by state. Local governments offered Band-Aid fixes like small business grants. And the stimulus packages passed by Congress last March and December fell far short of the $50 billion that advocates had hoped would go to the child-care industry.

By summer, 50 percent of providers were still closed, according to a research and advocacy group, Child Care Aware of America. Though that number fell to 13 percent by December, those that have opened are debt-ridden, pinching pennies here and there, and short-staffed to keep costs down.

The $1.9 trillion relief package that Congress passed in March includes an additional $25 billion to bail out providers, which is “urgent and important,” Ms. Poo said, “but it’s just the beginning. We have to stabilize what we have, but that is not going to be sufficient for what we need for real economic recovery.”

On Wednesday, President Biden unveiled the first half of a sweeping, two-part infrastructure plan that earmarks $25 billion to help upgrade child-care centers and to help build new ones. The second half of the president’s plan is expected to include an ambitious proposal to create a universal prekindergarten program. “For too long, caregivers — who are disproportionately women, women of color and immigrants — have been unseen, underpaid and undervalued,” Mr. Biden said.

In the interim, the industry’s workers have improvised; they signed petitions, they cut back on costs, they worked out how to engage toddlers in socially distant play time, or they stayed in touch with parents over Zoom, checking in on the children they were supposed to be caring for but no longer could.

“The child-care providers are really the unsung heroes of the pandemic,” said Sara Mauskopf, a co-founder and the chief executive of Winnie, an online search platform for child-care centers. “They have been showing up for work, in person, since Day 1 of the pandemic, and they did it at great personal risk and cost. They really deserve a lot of recognition for that.”

Here are four of their stories.

Loss

Rockport Early Childhood Center — Rocky River, Ohio

Aug. 28 was both a somber and a monumental day for Valerie Norris. It was a Friday. It was pouring rain, the kind of rain that falls sideways, and thunder rumbled in the distance. It was the day that Rockport — a child-care center where Ms. Norris had worked for almost four decades — shut its doors forever.

Located in Rocky River, a small suburb of Cleveland, Rockport had been open since 1981, and Ms. Norris, who started working at the center in 1986 and became its director in 1996, had watched generations grow and flourish before her eyes.

“I literally have had moms who came to Rockport as children bring their babies to Rockport,” said Ms. Norris, 61. “I’ve also hired teachers who were babies at Rockport.”

“One little boy who I was really close to discovered that he had this wonderful baritone singing voice,” she recalled. “Years after he left Rockport, his parents invited me to come to his high school solo recital.”

The average cost of infant care in Ohio is $9,697 per year — or about $800 per month — according to the Economic Policy Institute, an independent think tank. Rockport, which was owned by a church, cared for children as young as 6 weeks old all the way up to 6-year-old first graders. It took in only privately funded children. Full-time fees per month ran about $1,068 for a 6-week-old, which made it “not the most expensive center in the area, but not the cheapest, either,” Ms. Norris added, meaning the center wasn’t in a financially vulnerable position at the start of last year.

So its closure came as a surprise to everyone in the community.

On March 13, Rockport, taking a cue from the Rocky River School District, temporarily shut its doors. At that point, 70 children were enrolled at the center.

Four months later, in July, it reopened with a new business model and safety protocols that complied with local health requirements. To cut costs, Ms. Norris shortened the number of hours the center would be open.

But parents were still nervous about Covid, and only 33 children came back in that month, 25 of whom were full-time — less than half of the center’s pre-pandemic enrollment. That first week back, the center made $7,600. In a typical July, it would have made $17,500.

Still, Ms. Norris was optimistic that in August, when schools reopened, parents would be comfortable sending their toddlers in, too; she projected that she’d have about 50 children back.

“But then Rocky River announced that they weren’t going to open schools,” she said.

“Now these parents have nannies. So parents using a nanny at home, for example, with the school-aged child who is virtual learning, have to pay us to bring the little one in? They’re just not going to do that,” she added.

“That projected number that we had began to dwindle, dwindle, dwindle,” she said, making her business model more untenable by the day.

Just a few weeks after reopening, the finance committee at the church informed her that Rockport would have to shut down permanently. “We had one week’s notice,” Ms. Norris said.

So on Aug. 28, she drove to work for the last time. Her teachers had planned a safe, socially distanced farewell ceremony outside in the parking lot. But of course, there was the rain.

The rain was just so fitting, Ms. Norris said. “My preschool teachers taught the kids the song ‘The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow’ and then they sent the video to me,” she said.

Some parents sent her emails of gratitude. “To us, you are heroes,” one said. Children wrote notes and made signs. One wrote: “Thank you Rockport! I hate Covid-19. Boo!”

“We prepared countless numbers of children for kindergarten; we’re serving their minds, their bodies, their spirits.”

Valerie Norris

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“I feel like I lost my identity that day,” said Ms. Norris, who is now on unemployment benefits and looking for a new job.

“People who take care of children are still viewed as glorified babysitters,” she added. “But we prepared countless numbers of children for kindergarten; we’re serving their minds, their bodies, their spirits.”

Hustle

ACCA Child Development Center — Annandale, Va.

In April, Maria-Isabel Ballivian got a call from a man in Annandale, Va., whose wife had tested positive for Covid-19. She was displaying severe symptoms, he said, leaving him to care for their three children, all younger than 5. They lived in the basement of a house, making social distancing difficult.

“He was by himself, without any food or any understanding of what to do,” Ms. Ballivian, 47, said. She arranged to get some groceries and cleaning supplies delivered to the family, and contacted the health department to get him and the children tested and isolated.

This interaction — though not a formal part of Ms. Ballivian’s job description as executive director of the ACCA Child Development Center — has become part of a new normal for her. ACCA, a nonprofit organization that opened in 1967, serves many of Annandale’s working-class, immigrant families. About 90 percent of the children enrolled in ACCA — all aged zero to five — are eligible for government subsidies and, for a large majority, English is their second language.

When the pandemic hit, ACCA suddenly became the nucleus of the community — a place to get information, fresh food or even a space for school-age children to log on for virtual classes.

Through May, Ms. Ballivian partnered with the health department to create care packages with basic supplies — face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning equipment and information packets about the virus — and distributed them to all the families that were enrolled at the center. And she instructed her older and immunocompromised staff members — whom she had sent home to work remotely — to set up a time for daily virtual check-ins with families on their roster.

“Because we serve a lot of low-income families, the incidence of children exposed to abuse and neglect is higher,” Ms. Ballivian said. “So, that group that we set up to work with the families remotely had the task of doing two things: checking on the children and checking on the adults to make sure that everybody was OK.”

“Sometimes they would answer the phone and engage with us and sometimes they wouldn’t, so we would just try again the next day,” she added.

Many of the parents who use ACCA are frontline workers with few child-care options, so ACCA had to stay open.

To make this happen, many of Ms. Ballivian’s staffers brought their school-age children to the center so they could log on for virtual school while their parents worked their shifts.

Then, parents started dropping off the older siblings of some of the toddlers already enrolled in the program. Before she knew it, Ms. Ballivian had 54 school-age children at the center, up from zero before the pandemic.

Food turned out to be a challenge. Normally, the center would get its children’s lunches from the county’s school district. But when schools closed, so did their kitchens. Ms. Ballivian’s team was left trying to figure out how to bridge the gap.

Luckily, Ms. Ballivian already had a food handler’s license, and some of her staffers were trained to prepare food. So “we just went to Best Buy and broke a deal with them and got some grills and air fryers,” she said. They improvised lunch each day, throwing chicken nuggets into the fryer or grilling some vegetables.

“Little did we know at that time that this situation was going to stand until now,” she added. “We now have a full meal service program with a brand-new commercial dishwasher.”

In May, she managed to secure a loan of about $500,000 under the Paycheck Protection Program included in the first rescue package Congress passed last March, which carried the center through for a few months. And Virginia, like a few other states, waived its longstanding policy that government subsidies for children would be paid out based on attendance, instead paying child-care centers based on enrollment. Since so many of Ms. Ballivian’s children qualified for government subsidies, that policy provided much-needed relief, she said.

But that policy expired on July 1.

And when in August, the schools didn’t open back up, “the children who were supposed to graduate and go into the school system never did, they stayed with us,” Ms. Ballivian said. “These children are registered in the school system getting virtual education, and what we’re doing here is facilitating that virtual education.”

Enrollment at ACCA didn’t dip much, because the center served essential workers, but the costs of more desks and air filters, not to mention the kitchen equipment, kept adding up. When Covid cases cropped up, parts of the school would have to close for two weeks, resulting in $30,000 of lost revenue each time. By September, the center was starting to lose money.

“At times, I thought, is this worth it? Is this fight worth it?”

Maria-Isabel Ballivian

“I have to be honest with you: At times, I thought, is this worth it? Is this fight worth it?” Ms. Ballivian said. “But there was one day when I saw a child, who had been diagnosed with special needs, sitting in a classroom and playing with a set of bells. I thought to myself, even if it were just for this one child, even if the only person that we’re impacting positively is this one child, then it’s worth it.”

Class Disrupted

Updated March 29, 2021

The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.

    • Teaching new teachers is becoming a struggle, as disruptions from the pandemic scare off new recruits.
    • Frustration is growing in New Jersey’s affluent suburbs, where taxes are high and many students are barely in classrooms.
    • In a boost to school reopening, the federal government says students can be three feet apart if masked.
    • College admissions essays provide high school seniors a canvas to reflect on a turbulent year.

    Double Duty

    Kinder Kare — Midland, Mich.

    At 8 a.m. on a chilly February morning, Kristin Nowak was on breakfast duty at Kinder Kare, a child-care center in Midland within the Michigan Child Care Centers Inc. network.

    She poured out cereal, made fresh juice and cut up fruit; pushed it all out on carts to the classrooms; and then packed, labeled and stored the leftovers.

    Except Ms. Nowak isn’t Kinder Kare’s cook. She’s the center’s director. Minutes after getting breakfast done, she took phone calls from two parents who wanted to know if they could reduce the number of days their child spent at the center over the summer.

    This juxtaposed day — rolled-up sleeves in the kitchen one minute, administrative duty the next — has not only stretched her thin but is also the only way the center has managed to stay open.

    “We’re doing more on the floor because we’re trying to absorb some of the costs and multitask,” Ms. Nowak explained. “I’ve started taking on breakfast because it cuts a few hours off of our cook — she comes in and does lunch for us.”

    Kinder Kare is, as Ms. Nowak described, “a melting pot”: Her children range in age from newborns to 12 years old, and about half of them qualify for government subsidies and the other half come from middle-income families. Before the pandemic, she had an average of 80 children a week and a six-month wait-list. She now has an average of 50 children a week and, until last week, had no wait-list.

    Like many other states across the country, Michigan didn’t designate child-care workers as essential workers when it first entered lockdown. But Kinder Kare decided to stay open anyway. “We are known for always being open, we have always prided ourselves on that,” Ms. Nowak said.

    In those first few weeks, she had just eight to 10 children come in per day — all of them children of essential workers. So the first thing Ms. Nowak did was cut back her staff from 22 to just four, including herself.

    Then she reached out to a local organization that was offering Covid-related relief and applied for a donation. “I contacted them immediately, saying we need help, we’re not going to be able to cover rent, let alone buy sanitizing stuff and all that,” Ms. Nowak said. “So we received a $10,000 grant from them, which helped us with about three months of our rent.”

    “Now, we still have all our food costs and we pay six utility bills because I have six furnaces,” Ms. Nowak added. “So that’s why myself and the other director, we were here every day on the floor. I canceled our cleaning person and I cleaned every night before I went home. We were literally multitasking to try and get as far for as long as we could.”

    Ms. Nowak and her co-director would look after the children in the morning and then the two other staff members would take over in the afternoon.

    In May, the Michigan Child Care Centers Inc. network secured a P.P.P. loan to be distributed across its nine locations. That enabled Ms. Nowak to bring 14 of her staffers back on payroll for 24 weeks, even if they weren’t working full time when there were fewer children at the center (which is exactly what the loan program was designed for, in order to stem layoffs from small businesses). And at one point, Ms. Nowak’s landlord waived one month’s rent.

    “It’s just been an emotional roller coaster. One day we’re feeling very hopeful and then the next day, you’re just like, OK wait, what’s happening next?”

    Kristin Nowak

    Each month, the center would cobble together a plan to just make it through to the next month. But without the piecemeal funding and support, or the all-hands-on-deck approach, the center simply would not have survived, Ms. Nowak said.

    It wasn’t until this month that her enrollment numbers finally started to tick back up.

    “It’s just been an emotional roller coaster,” she added. “One day we’re feeling very hopeful and then the next day, you’re just like, OK, wait, what’s happening next?”

    Anxiety

    Ohana Family Child Care — Vista, Calif.

    One day last April, Belen Lopez woke up at 2 a.m. to drive to the nearest Costco.

    She needed to stock up on toilet paper, bread and fruit, and she knew the lines outside the store got long very quickly. She also wanted to get in during the allocated essential worker shopping hours because later in the day, most things were out of stock.

    They didn’t let her in. “I wasn’t considered an essential employee,” Ms. Lopez, 44, recalled. “I argued; I spoke to the managers and the supervisors and still, I had to wait until 10 a.m.”

    Those items she wanted to buy were essential for Ms. Lopez’s business — she runs a child-care center out of her home called Ohana Family Child Care. And she needed food for the children she was looking after, including one whose parents both worked as doctors at a hospital and a Covid ward. She had even carried her child-care license with her to show the Costco workers that she was shopping for work, not for herself.

    “I’ve always said we are the essential to the essential. Without us, there’s no nurses, there’s no doctors, there’s no infrastructure, because they need care for their children,” she said. But that experience waiting outside Costco opened her eyes to the fact that even in a crisis, others don’t see her that way.

    “I’m not a babysitter; I don’t sit at home, watching TV while these children are just doing what they want,” she said. “I do instructional work and I prepare a curriculum. I go to school, I take trainings, I take coaching, I work with the San Diego county of education so that I can prepare my children for preschool.”

    Before the pandemic, Ms. Lopez looked after 10 children of all ages, from a 2-month-old to an 8-year-old who would spend afternoons with her after school. One toddler spent several nights at her place in 2019 when his mother went into labor to give birth to his baby sister. All her children call her husband “papa.”

    An analysis by the Department of Education found that, in 2019, about 18 percent of the children across the country enrolled in some kind of day care arrangement were cared for in residential-based centers, like Ms. Lopez’s. While that seems like a small slice of the industry, it is a crucial segment that provides a safe space for parents who work nontraditional hours, are in low-income jobs or live in rural communities, according to the National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance.

    Ms. Lopez used to charge up to $250 per week for children aged zero to 2. She had three other women on her payroll — a cleaner and two assistants — and, because she didn’t have to rent a space, used to make a healthy profit of about $8,500 a month.

    Now, a year into the pandemic, she has burned through her savings to stay afloat and is about two months away from shutting down her child-care center permanently.

    At the outset of the pandemic, seven families pulled their children out of Ms. Lopez’s center, leaving her with just three — an 18-month-old and two 3-year-olds. Most of her client families had lost their jobs and could no longer afford to pay for child care. But closing down on the three other children, when their parents needed her most, was not an option. “I can’t shut my doors on them. They’re a part of me as much as I’m a part of them,” she said. “I don’t see it just as a paycheck.”

    So to keep things running, she applied for a P.P.P. loan and a grant from the Small Businesses Administration. She got a total of $3,800, which helped her cover payroll through April. Then she had to let go of her staff and do everything herself.

    Every day since, she has been waking up at 4 a.m. to prepare breakfast and lunch for the children, and lay out her teaching plan before the three children arrive at around 7.30 a.m. After a packed day of activities — exercise, story time, play time, snack time, nap time — their parents start picking them up at 5 p.m. Then Ms. Lopez goes through and disinfects everything in her house to reset for the next day.

    “I’ve always said we are the essential to the essential. Without us, there’s no nurses, there’s no doctors, there’s no infrastructure, because they need care for their children.”

    Belen Lopez

    In August, she asked her daughter, Josefina, 21, who plans to attend college later this year, to help out every now and then.

    The fees that Ms. Lopez charges for those three full-time children amount to just over $1,800 a month. In September, when some schools opened back up, she took in one more 6-year-old child on a part-time basis — dropping him off at school and picking him up — and receives about $132 a week in government subsidies to look after him.

    Food alone for the three full-time children costs her up to $600 a month. Extra sanitizing equipment and utilities more or less eat up whatever is left. She had applied for a second P.P.P. loan and was denied. She used to be able to give herself a paycheck of $2,300 a month, but can no longer afford to do that.

    “It’s getting to the point where I’m considering, should I just start looking for another part-time job?”

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