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From 'crisis' to 'decimation': What happens when a pandemic hits child care

Erie County Department of Social Services

The New York State Child Care Availability Task Force was established 18 months ago to dive into what officials call the child care "crisis" afflicting the state. After just a couple of months of pandemic, however, words like "devastation" and "decimation" are being used. Here are their interim findings and recommendations.

"If you look at child care pre-COVID, the whole state — like, 64% of it — was considered a childcare desert and 61% of Erie County was considered a childcare desert," said Kaley Donaldson, communications specialist for the Child Care Resource Network.

Donaldson said a "desert" is defined by looking at census tracts, which optimum for the 2020 Census is defined as 4,000 people or 1,800 housing units. If there are fewer child care slots available than the number of children in a tract, it is considered a desert.

"So the vast majority of our state and our county didn't have an adequate supply of child care before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now with a lot of the financial hardships that childcare providers have felt, this whole process is going to be devastating to the childcare community," she said.

"I think there is grave concern of the decimation of the childcare industry. The real challenge is going to be when we start to reopen businesses," said Sheri Scavone, executive director of the Western New York Women's Foundation. She is also a member of the New York State Child Care Availability Task Force and an advisor on child care to Erie County.

"All of this boils down to a lack of availability to child care," Scavone said, "which is going to impact a parent's ability to return to work, and we know this will disproportionately impact women, who were about 80% of childcare responsibilities in the average household." 

All childcare centers in New York City were closed under the state's PAUSE precautions. Scavone said the state Office of Child and Family Services was able to interview 13,000 of the remaining centers the week of May 10 and found nearly half (47%) were also closed.

She said in Erie County, closures have ranged from 39%-57% during the pandemic. Percentages in rural areas, where there already are fewer centers, were even higher.

Credit Erie County Department of Social Services

"Rather disturbing on their survey was that for those that remained open, the average utilization rate was 30%, but it ranged from 0%-100%," she said. "Of those that closed, the majority were unsure when they'd reopen, if they reopen. The New York State Association of Early Education did a survey that predicted 50% will never reopen. The national data is about 30% will never reopen."

Scavone said the number one concern of those centers that could reopen (about a third) was whether they would have enough children to sustain their business. She said childcare centers already operate on "razor-thin margins" and surveys have indicated 50% or more parents are not comfortable sending their children back to child care as they reopen.

"Children are more likely to spread their germs because they don't always understand the importance of washing their hands, Donaldson said. An infant or a toddler, their first reaction is to put everything they touch in their mouth. It will be a little easier with school-age children, you know, mandating the social distancing, exp-laining why people are wearing masks, why we can't hug people."

Donaldson said many questions remain about how long schools will be closed, and she does not expect many school-based childcare centers to reopen if their school is closed. Questions also remain about whether summer camps will open.

Scavone said there may be a shortage of workers, as well.

"Childcare workers are so poorly paid, 65% of them qualify for public benefit assistance. They are actually making more on unemployment," she said. "So there is zero incentive to come back to work when the childcare centers do begin to reopen."

Mindful of the huge budget gaps faced by the state and local governments, the New York State Child Care Availability Task Force has sent interim recommendations to the governor to help sustain the current industry and build a stronger future.

They recommend using remaining federal CARES Act resources to help ensure sufficient capacity of centers, financial support for childcare workers and families, as well as the health and safety of workers and enrolled children:

  • CAPACITY: monthly emergency operating grants, capital investments to fund social distancing measures, increased pay and retention incentives, health and safety training and technical assistance
  • WORKERS & FAMILIES: increase eligibility for tuition scholarships to 500% of the federal poverty level, job training and childcare subsidies for families receiving county public benefits
  • HEALTH & SAFETY: COVID-19 guidance, education for parents in multiple languages, collect data on the number of illnesses in childcare settings and constantly revise safety standards as dictated

The task force recommends focusing on existing childcare centers first, then start-up grants in childcare deserts. Long-term, it wants county variations in subsidy eligibility and co-pays to be eliminated, and all families earning up to 85% of the state median income to be eligible.
Scavone recognized more work will be needed when CARES Act funds run out.

"We've studied some other models, in Quebec and other places, that have used public funding or public-private funding to create a more universal-type system with central administration and efficiencies of scale, and the return on investment was over 100%, just based on the return of women to the workforce," she said.

"I think we've spent a lot of time — and rightfully so — publicly thanking our healthcare providers, our grocery store clerks and our janitors and our garbage people, but I don't think childcare providers are getting that same recognition, which is a little unfortunate, because most of those people would not be able to go to work unless they had a childcare provider caring for their children," Donaldson said. "They are a frontline hero equal to everybody else."

Donaldson said child care is foundational to the economy and lies quietly in the background until it is needed.

"If there is a silver to this whole pandemic, I think it really exposed the systems in our community that were not working properly," she said. "Our economy doesn't work without child care, quite literally, and that's gonna really hamper the recovery of our economy if we lose a significant portion of these child care programs on the other side of this."

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