October 22, 2021

When play is work

COVID undercuts already troubled child care system

Photos by Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Natalie Tucker plays Thursday in the sandbox at the YWCA Here We Grow day-care center. After 14 months of reduced demand because the COVID-19 pandemic kept parents — and their children — home, questions remain on whether child-care facilities can ramp up capacity fast enough to help parents get back to work.

The kids playing Thursday morning at the YWCA’s Here We Grow day-care center in Cortland don’t know what it takes to let them play.

What they know is that the play set is a sailing ship — or maybe a spaceship. They know that the green-and-white toy isn’t a truck, it’s a farm combine. They know the dinosaur peaks on their backpack are pretty cool, that it’s OK to give a random stranger a hug — at least here and now. And, for whatever reason, the teacher doesn’t want them digging a huge trench in the sandbox. Maybe China is on the other side.

They’re kids — 3, 4 and 5 years old. What they know is their job, and their job is to play. They don’t know the challenges their parents, their teachers and their communities face to make that happen.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, day-care providers could watch only one out of three children in Cortland County who needed it, said Kelly Tobin, executive director of the Cortland YWCA.

That’s about 1,000 spots at licensed facilities for 3,000 children, said Bob Haight, president of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. Child-care centers had to contract, shedding employees and capacity, as the pandemic kept families home. The YWCA used to have capacity for 99 children, its child-care director said. Now it has room for just 36.

That will complicate efforts to restart Cortland’s economy, which lost about 1,300 jobs since the pandemic shutdown of March 2020.

“Many of our businesses are struggling to get enough employees to fully function,” Haight said. “There are multiple reasons, but child-care slots are one of them.”

Several businesses in Cortland have hired full-time employees, only to be told the employees couldn’t find child care, Haight said. Individuals are having to give up career opportunities and financial security to stay home and take care of their children.

The economy won’t be able to fully re-open without more child-care to let parents get back to work, Haight said. “We’re going to wind up with businesses having machines that are idle or reduced hours because there’s not enough employees.”

Haight suggests getting employees back to work, supplying additional stimulus dollars and extending unemployment benefits, he said.

TEMPORARY SOLUTION

A federal relief bill bringing $1.8 billion to day-care facilities in Central New York and the rest of upstate New York is just a temporary solution to a larger issue, Tobin said.

“It’s not that community providers don’t want to open up for more children, but the challenges we face make it impossible to meet the needs of the community,” Tobin said. “We are significantly underpaid, we’re having a hard time attracting workers and our staff are able to find jobs that are better paying with far less stress and obligation.”

Child-care providers across the country are being forced to increase tuition, Tobin said. The YWCA increased tuition by $10 a week. Still, the actual cost of care exceeds what providers can comfortably charge families, and government subsidies don’t fill the entire gap.

“There’s a big discrepancy with what we ask parents to pay versus the true cost of care,” Tobin said. “Home providers are not taking a salary at all, they’re just covering the cost of doing it out of their homes.”

The federal funding will provide $1.8 billion to New York to assist providers, employees and parents recover from the pandemic, Sen. Chuck Schumer said at a media event earlier this week in Cortland.

“Since the start of the pandemic, day care and child care center advocates in Central New York have been sounding the alarm that these places are critical to our reopening and need help to survive,” said Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The funding will help rehire staff laid off during the pandemic, and help families who need child-care return to work full-time, he said.

But providers are unsure when they will receive assistance, Tobin said. And the funding will not sustain them long term. In fact, much of the funding will go to families to help them pay the cost, and what funding targeted for the facilities doesn’t list expanding capacity as among its uses.

“COVID really magnified the complexities of the childcare system,” Tobin said. “It’s been a crisis for many years and COVID pushed a lot of those providers over the edge and they had to close down their facilities.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the YWCA closed its Learning Adventure center and drop-in service, Tobin said. But as parents are being called back to work, the YWCA is getting calls to provide care for infants and toddlers.

“Infant and toddler care is where we are seeing the most calls, but it’s the most expensive care,” said Jami Bistocchi, the YWCA child care director.

The state Department of Social Services pays providers $220 a week to care for infants. The YWCA charges $245, Bistocchi said. Six of the 36 children in its program get that subsidy.

“Any child that we get that is qualified for day care subsidy, we are losing $25 a week for that child,” she said — that’s $150 in lost revenue every week.

It’s the same for toddlers and preschool-age children, Bistocchi said.

“The funding that we are seeing from the state in the form of the relief package is great, it will help families pay for day care but for us, it says we will be getting support in grant application,” Bistocchi said. “When grant funds run out, I’m not sure what will happen.”

Almost half the families in Cortland have children in child care, Bistocchi said. And it’s not just babysitting – it’s early childhood education.

“In a child, their brain is just a little sponge, they’re learning so much in the first three years of their life,” Bistocchi said. “There are neurological connections that need to be made and happen there that will help them be a good learner for the rest of their life.”

Sustainable funding would allow providers to add more support for children with delays and behavioral issues, Bistocchi said.

“Early care is very needed in communities for economic development,” Bistocchi said. “The cost of care and the cost of doing business is outweighing what some families can afford.”

“In the past several years as minimum wage has gone up, increases in staff cost and labor at child care centers has made the problem even worse,” Haight said. “The affordability of child care continues to snowball and create more problems.”

Anne Withers, director of the Child Development Council in Cortland, which helps families find family-run day cares in the greater Cortland area, has seen parents have to turn down fulltime jobs due to lack of child care availability.

“Even though enrollment in child care is low, we still have few openings,” Withers said. “This was a problem before the pandemic and it is continuing and will probably be worse because we’ve lost a few childcare providers.”

Cortland County has 12 single-family child-care facilities and 10 group child-care facilities, Withers said. The single-family facilities can take up to eight children and the group family child care facilities, which are licensed to have assistance, can take up to 16.

“When people call looking for child care, if they have an infant, basically, unless they are very lucky, there are no openings,” Withers said. “We encourage people to stay home with their children or to take on other children to encourage more providers.”

Withers has seen parents stop working, change their shifts to when another parent is home or tap family, friends and neighbors, Withers said.

Without a license to operate an at home care facility, individuals can’t take more than two children outside their immediate family.

“It’s heartbreaking when you get someone that calls and says they have no one or they’re new to the area or they need to work,” Withers said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to be an agency that helps people find child care because so many times you feel like you’re failing.”

Instead of providing free public schooling to children from kindergarten through 12th grade, Haight suggests one solution could be providing free child care until children are 13.

“We’re better off if we started at age 0 and as soon as mom and dad want to go back to work, there’s free education for that child up until age 13,” Haight said. “It’s more important for that child that is less than 5.”

The state Childcare Availability Task Force, of which Tobin has been a member since 2018, announced on Tuesday four directions the state could take to improve child-care: improving affordability, access, quality and the way the child care system operates.

The guidance also reflects a different tone of the need, she added.

“Before COVID, there was a conversational shift and it gave us hope it would be raised to a level where we would see some assistance,” Tobin said. “It was a family issue, a women’s issue and it changed the conversation to a work force and economic development issue.”