Early Childhood: One year later, where does the child care industry stand?

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Jackie Mader

By Jackie Mader

When the pandemic shut down much of the country in March 2020, June Shillito reluctantly kept the Yates Baptist Child Development Center in Durham, North Carolina, open. She was nervous about the health of her staff and families, but she wanted to be able to provide an income for her teachers and serve children of essential workers. Even when her enrollment fell from 52 to 11 children, she was able to pay her staff members because the church received a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. Although children have slowly returned to the center, Shillito’s classrooms still aren’t at full capacity. She’s getting by, for now, by cobbling together funds from a second PPP loan, grant money from the state and parent subsidies. “If you don’t have full enrollment, the budget doesn’t work,” Shillito said. “Right now, we’re ok, but that’s because money is being given to us.”
 
Researchers estimated early on that the pandemic would devastate the already fragile child care industry, possibly causing up to half of all child care centers to close permanently. And while many centers have closed, new data from Child Care Aware of America (CCAOA) found the losses have been far less than anticipated. Among 15 states that are currently tracking the number of permanent child care closures, 3 percent of centers and 4 percent of family child care homes, on average, have closed—a percentage that could increase as states update their information and emergency funds run out. (In Oregon, for example, KOIN news recently reported that between April 2019 to April 2021, the state saw a 15 percent decrease in the total number of child care facilities in the state). Still, the Child Care Aware data paint a more optimistic outlook than many expected.
 
“It is our hope that some relief funds over the past year have helped to prevent the worst from happening in the child care system,” said Lynette M. Fraga, the organization’s CEO, in a statement. “But our research shows that permanent closures are real in many states and have started to have a measurable impact.”
 
Center operators like Shillito aren’t in the clear, even as the pandemic is seemingly winding down and the economy is improving. The pandemic has done nothing to fix critical problems with child care, including low wages for workers, high tuition and staff retention issues. In Shillito’s community, she says middle-class families can’t afford her center’s rates and low-income families are only able to pay for care with the help of state child care subsidies, which often pay below market rate. Parents who can afford the full cost are “paying the equivalent of a mortgage,” Shillito said. And with all the costs associated with high-quality care, “We can’t afford to pay our teachers a living wage.”
 
Despite fewer than expected center closures, the pandemic is still having a very real impact on child care supply. Experts and educators are particularly concerned about a few key aspects:

  • Enrollment: The report by Child Care Aware included data showing that child care attendance was down 32 percent in December 2020. Nationwide, many centers are still struggling to get up to pre-Covid enrollment numbers, possibly due in part to a shift in demand from cities to suburbs. In late May, the owner of a child care center in Delaware said his center’s enrollment was still down 40 percent. In Ohio, a child care center that used to serve up to 100 children a day now serves 20. In Illinois, some centers are reporting that families are still slow to re-enroll their children. In Maine, while some centers are at capacity, others say many parents are looking for part-time care, which isn’t financially viable for center operators

  • Staffing: Many centers are also having problems finding qualified staff, meaning that if demand grows, they will be unable to enroll additional children. Open positions abound: 3 percent of jobs created in May were in the child care industry, according to recently published data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One survey of child care center owners in New Hampshire found an additional 2,000 children could be served in centers if staffing was no longer an issue. June Shillito has seen this first hand. In mid-March, she posted an open position “everywhere I can think to advertise.” By early June, the position was still open and she hadn’t seen many viable candidates. “The ones who are applying don’t have the education we need,” Shillito said. A few other applicants never responded when Shillito followed up and one failed to show up for a job interview. The issue is compounded, Shillito said, by rules related to the pandemic that require staff members to stay with one group of children each day, which means she has less flexibility in how to deploy staff.
  • Ongoing funding vs. one-time funding: Mario Cardona, chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware, said he is heartened to see $40 billion highlighted for child care in the American Rescue Plan Act, “to repair a lot of the damage that was done by the pandemic.” However, “it is nowhere near sufficient to meet the needs of the system in the long-term,” he added. “It’s going to take year-over-year investments to make sure that you’re creating a system that meets the needs of families, that supports providers and also gets to the point where we can actually pay early educators a living wage with benefits.”

Shillito hopes her center will get a boost if they are accepted as a provider for Durham’s public pre-K program, which means they would get long-term financial support to provide those classes. She also hopes that with the infusion of federal money, child care centers will be able to raise the minimum wage for teachers and make child care more affordable for parents.
 
But ultimately, she believes early childhood educators need to be viewed and treated as professionals to truly build back the workforce. “People don’t make money in this position…it doesn’t have a lot of respect or professionalism associated with it,” she said. “If I was in college and someone was asking what I wanted to do in the future, I don’t know if I would do this.”

More on post-pandemic child care:
 Research Quick Take 

Children in Arkansas child care and preschool programs are displaying lower levels of engagement in learning and social activities, including cooperative play with peers, compared to pre-pandemic times, according to a new report by SRI Education. At the same time, 40 percent of early ed teachers reported their job has been “extremely stressful” or “very stressful” in the two weeks before they were surveyed. Over a quarter of the educators surveyed reported using at least one “exclusionary practice” other than expulsion for preschoolers with challenging behavior; and 21 percent used these practices for toddlers, including asking a caregiver to pick up a child early, offering a shortened school day or asking a child to stay home for a full day or more.

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