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 always arrived first to unlock the doors.
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Child artwork covered the walls in the quiet hallway. Brightly decorated doors said things like “Ready! For a colorful year.” She knew it was the last morning she’d walk down that 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 well-to-do 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 see her as a victim. She said she earned a good salary (about $50,000 annually) doing work she loved. She does not want to lament that unemployment pays only half what she made, or that after providing 30 steady jobs and 80 reliable child care slots in her community for three decades, she’s now wondering what to do with herself. 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 Latinx 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, that problem was only compounded.
“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 … It’s been embarrassing as a U.S. citizen.”
Elizabeth Remsen, parent
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 may have needed child care and not had 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.) Experts expect the gap after the pandemic to be even wider.
Among child care centers that have remained open, 81 percent enroll fewer kids today — half as many in some states — 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 (NAEYC), 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 percent of child care providers surveyed by NAEYC 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 NAEYC. “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. The $3.5 billion included in the March 2020 coronavirus aid package was estimated to cover the cost of just 30 percent of child care slots for one month, according to the Center for American Progress. The latest relief bill, passed in December, included an additional $10 billion.
Private child care providers were eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, but less than 6 percent of them were granted PPP loans, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. (It is not yet clear how many applied.) Of the $2.3 billion given to child care (less than 1 percent of the total distribution), 89 percent of the loans were for less than $150,000, the policy center reported.
State assistance has also been scarce.
“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.”
Charlie Joughin, First Five Years Fund
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.
In the long term, some experts warn, even that won’t be enough for communities that have already been 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, which advocates for pro-child care policies in Washington.
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.
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,” said Remsen, who works full-time and has two older children in remote learning. “It’s been embarrassing as a U.S. citizen.”
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. She said she knows a lot of other teachers who also plan to quit for good in part because of how little respected they’ve felt by the lack of assistance.
“It’s honestly been really disheartening,” she said.
Many providers think nobody in power cares about their work.
Tiffany Pearsall is the director of a small center in Carson, Washington, that has managed, barely, to stay open. She’s frustrated by the limits placed on the assistance that has been offered to child care providers.
“It’s like: ‘I can’t just give you money like we’ve given other industries. You’d abuse that.’ Abuse what, man?” Pearsall said, her voice rising. “This idea that care providers can’t be trusted to make decisions about their businesses. I’m just … I’m over it. I’m done.”
Pearsall received a PPP loan that helped her center bridge its closure (half of March and all of April), and since her center is a nonprofit, she has been able to solicit direct donations, which have kept her going. Still, she’s been operating at a loss since the center reopened in May.
“Looking ahead, every decision is a hard decision,” she said. “Do I buy glue sticks this week, or do I make sure that if someone is sick, we can go into overtime and afford that? It’s not a way to live. It’s not a way to operate and still be an industry at the end of the day.”
There is only so much any center can charge and still attract enough parents who can afford to pay. The biggest limiting factor is the child-to-staff ratio. For the most part, those ratios must be low to meet safety and quality requirements imposed by state governments. That means just a few families are covering a given teacher’s salary, plus the rent for the facility, the supplies for the school, a cleaning service, the director’s salary and any other overhead costs.
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 Plexiglas 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 PPP 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 had lost their other child care arrangements. (In some cases, that included public school, which in Portland has been closed to in-person learning since March.)
State child care subsidies 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.
Helping families who could not afford tuition to attend the center had been a line item in the Hopkins budget since its inception in 1981. The center served 107 kids before the pandemic and was able to help about 11 who couldn’t afford tuition. Bonczyk said she doesn’t think it’s fair that high-quality early childhood care is mostly limited to those with the ability to pay deposits and tuition fees that often match or exceed those of state colleges.
“Unless you have a funding stream that holds spots, you end up serving a disproportionate number of white children just because that’s what keeps the doors open,” she said.
But without stable government funding, Bonczyk and others said private child care providers were limited in their ability to change the status quo.
“Money,” said Cori Berg, a center director in Dallas. “Money is what’s needed.”
Berg’s center, the Hope Day School, 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!”
Job listings for child care positions have been back up to near-normal levels since the fall, according to Chris Herbst, an associate professor in the school of public affairs at Arizona State University. Normally, that would be a sign of a healthy industry, he said. But child care providers interviewed for this story said hiring had become exceedingly difficult. That corresponds with NAEYC’s finding that 69 percent of providers surveyed in November said recruiting and retaining staff is harder now than it was before the pandemic.
MaryLou Beaver, who runs a center in Concord, New Hampshire called The Children’s Place, has two unstaffed classrooms that she thinks she could fill with children if only she could find teachers.
“No one has applied who was qualified,” Beaver said. “We’re not raising new [teachers] and we’re not bringing new ones into the field.”
She thinks the reason centers are open at all is because providers, nearly all of whom are women, are trying to help the families who depend on them.
“I mean, if we didn’t have people like that, think of where the kids would be,” she said. “But, why do we have to have people like that? Why isn’t child care recognized for what it is, and the need and the necessity of it?”
Back in Ohio, Norris, the former director of the Rockport Early Childhood Center, is working on her resume for the first time since the 1980s. On the center’s last open day, the toddler teachers had a surprise for Norris — they’d taught the kids to sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” She still has the video of the performance and she’s trying to hold on to the message. Her favorite quote, by Kahlil Gibran, adorns her new resume: “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.”