Driving to work before dawn last winter, Valerie Norris heard an NPR report about a terrible disease spreading in China – a pandemic, people were starting to call it. It sounded sad but very far from Rocky River, Ohio, where she’d led the Rockport Early Childhood Center for 34 years.
A few weeks later, she knew better.
It was still dark on the chilly morning of March 13 when Norris pulled into the big parking lot at the Rockport United Methodist Church, where her school was based. She knew it was the last morning she’d walk down this hallway for a while. She didn’t imagine it was the beginning of the end of her center, of her career, of the community she had worked so hard to build.
“We’ve weathered storms before,” Norris, 61, said of her center, located in a suburb about 10 miles west of Cleveland. “But this one is a tsunami.”
By August, the doors had closed for good.
“We’re grieving,” she said. “I know it doesn’t hold a candle to the loss of life that’s happening in our country, but the pandemic yielded losses of so many sorts.”
Norris is adamant that no one sees her as a victim. She wants to concentrate on the “heart of the matter” – the children, the parents and the teachers. And she wants to know: “Could it have been avoidable? Could some sort of safety net have been offered to sustain us, to fortify us?”
Many thousands of child care providers caught in the same tsunami that knocked out Rockport are asking the same questions, as are many thousands more who have stayed open, but barely. All of them are caught in the unworkable math of pandemic child care: Too few tuition-paying children to support the needed staff. Too many new expenses required to keep the doors open safely. Too few loans and grants available to help bridge the gap for the mostly female small business owners who provide the bulk of the nation’s child care.
These effects have been especially stark in communities of color. Child care workers are disproportionately women of color, thousands of whom have continued working with minimal protection while many thousands more lost their jobs. Affordable, quality child care was already scarce in Latino and Native communities, according to research on child care deserts by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. And while less likely to live in child care deserts, median-income Black families already pay a larger share of their income on child care than other groups, the center found.
Publicly funded programs for those living in poverty are more likely to survive the current storm, but there aren’t enough of those programs to serve everyone who needs them. And closures in the private sector have left many families without safe child care options. For families of color, a disproportionate number of whom are headed by essential workers or single parents, the problem is again exacerbated.
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Though an exact count of closures is still not possible, 166,800 fewer people were working in child care in December 2020 than had been in those jobs in December 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even before the pandemic, as many as 2.7 million children under age 6 were in need child care but lacking a spot, according to an analysis of 25 states by the Bipartisan Policy Center. (Researchers at the center intended to calculate the gap for all 50 states, but their work was disrupted by the pandemic.) After the pandemic, that gap could be vastly larger.
Among child care centers that have remained open, 81% enroll fewer kids today than they did pre-pandemic, according to a survey of more than 6,000 providers conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional organization for early educators. As vaccines make it into arms, experts expect enrollment to increase, but it’s unclear how quickly that will happen since it is also unclear how many child care spots will still be available.
To survive with fewer tuition-paying families and expensive new pandemic safety guidelines, 42% of child care providers surveyed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in November had taken on personal debt, often on credit cards. Providers say they don’t know how long they can hold on.
Child care advocates argue that the pandemic is simply exposing problems that have existed for decades.
“The market in child care doesn’t work,” said Lauren Hogan, managing director of policy at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “We don’t ask parents to pay for fourth grade one child at a time.”
Since March, the federal government has allocated only a fraction – about a quarter – of the $50 billion in direct-to-child care relief funding that industry advocates say is needed. Private providers were technically eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans, but only 6% of them actually secured those funds. State assistance has also been limited.
President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, released on Jan. 14, calls for a $25 billion emergency stabilization fund that would cover child care providers’ pandemic-associated costs, including payroll. The plan would also add $15 billion in child care assistance for families, with the aim of helping workers, especially women, return to their jobs and increasing pay for child care providers. If that money came through, the overall total in federal relief would just surpass the $50 billion advocates have been calling for.
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In the long term, some experts warn, even that won’t be enough, especially in communities that were already struggling.
“That is a starting point,” said William Dunbar, vice president of policy for the National Black Child Development Institute, of the hoped-for new funds. “That funds the industry correctly, which has been vastly underfunded. But it’s not an equalizer for Black families.”
Still, there’s cautious optimism among experts that the country’s child care crisis, which has been thrust into public view by the pandemic, could force real change.
“As terrible as the pandemic is, it has accelerated the effort we’ve been working on to shine the light on how difficult it is for families to find quality care,” said Charlie Joughin, spokesperson for the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy organization.
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Elizabeth Remsen, 34, a mother of three in Concord, New Hampshire, hopes he’s right. One of the 21.5 million American workers with children under age 6, she can afford only a few hours of child care four days a week for her youngest, who is 5. Her fiancé’s consulting business was hurt by the pandemic, so he spends much of the day helping his older kids with their remote schooling while Remsen works from home at her management job.
Remsen earns less than $60,000 a year, and both her stimulus checks have gone to child care. She said she could use some help.
“We’re supposed to be one of the most powerful and greatest countries in the world, and we can’t even figure out how to make child care affordable or available in a pandemic without a parent or both parents sacrificing something they’ve worked for,” she said. “It’s been embarrassing as a U.S. citizen.”
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Many of the child care businesses that closed in 2020 won’t be reopening no matter what the federal government offers.
Mary De La Rosa, 38, has been a home-based provider in Los Angeles for 17 years. She applied to all the loan programs she could find. Her husband, an accountant, helped her make sure everything was in order. They calculated she was eligible for a $26,000 loan under the Paycheck Protection Program. She planned to keep paying herself and her assistants while building an outdoor classroom in her backyard that would allow her to keep serving her 14 enrolled children safely.
An email confirmed that her application had been received. After that, she heard nothing. Without any help to stay open, De La Rosa let her license lapse and expects to stay closed permanently.
One month, maybe two, of under-enrollment is one thing. Some centers and even some home-based child care providers can survive that. But enrollment plummeting off a pandemic cliff?
“We can make it until March this way,” said Allison Morton in early January. She is the director of Small Wonders School, a two-facility child care program in Portland, Oregon, that used to enroll about 190 children. Morton closed in March, laid off staff and applied for loans, which she and her co-owners received. Small Wonders reopened in June, with Morton having used much of her reserves to split the classrooms in half and outfit teachers with personal protective equipment.
“I think we got the last plexiglass in the state at that point,” Morton joked. In total, she spent about $16,000 on facility updates to meet pandemic health guidelines.
The school is still short 40 kids, and without those tuition dollars, the business continues to lose money. In early February, the school received a second small Paycheck Protection Program loan, which will allow Morton to pay herself for the first time in months.
At the same time, she’s expanded her scholarship program – from two kids to 11 kids – because she feels compelled to help front-line workers who can’t afford her fees but who have lost their more affordable child care arrangements. (In Portland, where schools have been closed to in-person learning since March 2020, that includes public school.)
State subsidies for child care usually do not cover families earning more than about $40,000 a year, on average, according to data gathered by the National Women’s Law Center, even though many families in that income range cannot afford private care. When government assistance is provided, it often covers just half the fees at a private center like Small Wonders.
“Ultimately, the programs that are the highest quality are sought out by families of means,” said Jamie Bonczyk, who ran the nonprofit Hopkins Early Learning Center in Minnesota until it closed on Dec. 18.
Bonczyk said she doesn’t think it’s fair that high-quality child care is mostly limited to those with the ability to pay deposits and tuition fees that often match or exceed those of state colleges. Those who can afford the fees in her community, she has found, are disproportionately white. But without stable government funding, she said private child care providers were limited in their ability to change the status quo.
Cori Berg’s center, the Hope Day School in Dallas, has stayed open but has been bleeding money since mid-March when its enrollment plummeted. “Not the $30,000 we were losing at the beginning,” Berg said in January. But with the school enrolling 47 students at that point, rather than the 80 it served before the pandemic, Berg estimated it was losing about $6,000 a month.
After a tuition hike last fall, Hope Day School parents now pay between $1,190 and $1,380 per month depending on the age of their child, which is within the price range of many larger centers in urban areas. And yet, it isn’t enough to cover teacher salaries comparable to those of K-12 teachers. Berg is able to offer $10.50 an hour to entry-level teachers and $12.60 an hour to lead teachers. She knows some of her teachers, a portion of whom are single mothers, struggle to afford food and pay rent.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” she wrote in an email. “And we’re a center that serves high-income families!”
Child care workers like those employed by Berg earn an average of $24,230 a year. More than half (53%) are eligible for some form of government benefit.
The low pay likely contributes to the increased difficulty of hiring for child care jobs right now; 69% of providers surveyed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in November said recruiting and retaining staff is harder now than it was before the pandemic.
Back in Ohio, Norris, the former director of the Rockport Early Childhood Center, is working on her résumé for the first time since the 1980s. She has added her favorite quote, by Kahlil Gibran, to the new document: “Work is love made visible.”
At her shuttered center, though, there’s not much left to see. The simple cinder block classrooms with their brightly colored accent walls are empty. The playground, backing onto a city park above the green banks of the Rocky River, is quiet.
“I feel like it’s lip service – when they talk about how we care for children as a society,” she said of policymakers and politicians. “They don’t put their money where their mouth is.”
This story about child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.