Maria Jasso and Evelyn Contreras dreamed of opening a preschool where young children would have nutritious meals, outdoor play and a nurturing, bilingual education in Spanish and English. For seven years the two moms planned and scrimped to make it happen in Santa Rosa.
But within two hours of obtaining their child care license, they received unexpected news: the first pandemic stay-home order issued by Sonoma County on March 17, 2020.
“It was very challenging. We explored getting a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan but we were not able to get it because we were not operating prior to March 17,” Jasso said.
They weren’t the only providers in a bind. Between March 2020 and January, 57% of child care spots were lost in Sonoma County, a decline of more than 7,000 children no longer in licensed care, according to the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, known as 4Cs.
Although financial loss during the coronavirus pandemic has further decimated local child care infrastructure, families and surviving providers say they hope additional government funding will help stabilize an underfunded industry that is earning more recognition as a public good and backbone of the economy.
“All of us are impacted or supported because of access to child care. If parents don’t have a safe and reliable place for their children to be while they go to work it really starts to undermine the function of the city, of municipal structures,” said Ashley Williams, senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.
Jasso and Contreras were able to open Little Wildflowers Preschool in May with restrictions. Although the Montessori-inspired Santa Rosa school is licensed for 55 kids, it currently operates in two cohorts at half capacity. The two women used their personal savings to support the school and didn’t pay themselves until recently.
“We’re just thankful we were able to find this beautiful space and that we’re open and operating,” Contreras said.
There were 12,749 kids enrolled in 608 child care facilities in Sonoma County before the pandemic. By this past January, there were only 5,518 kids enrolled in local daycares and preschool programs, and this month only 396 facilities were operating, at about 45% capacity, according to 4Cs Executive Director Melanie Dodson.
Forty-two child care facilities closed permanently during the pandemic, Dodson said. She is pinning her hopes on as many as 217 sites reopening once it abates.
“I've heard from some preschools and programs that they will not reopen until the pandemic rules and regulations around group sizes are completely gone. So that could be a while,” Dodson said. “We're very concerned as we move forward — will there be enough capacity not only in slots but in facilities as parents start to go back to work in person?”
The child care crisis existed long before the pandemic. In the devastation of the 2017 fires, 14 local child care facilities were lost overnight.
Viridiana Ruiz, 37, mom of a 2½-year-old son, recalled the challenge of finding quality child care before the pandemic. For the first year of her son’s life she ended up relying on part-time help from a relative who lived 25 minutes away from her Rohnert Park home.
Ruiz said she felt lucky when she eventually secured a spot at the child care center at Sonoma State University, where she works as an administrative assistant. The monthly bill for infant care was $1,600. It dropped to about $1,300 when her son turned 2.
“I wouldn’t be able to pay for two child care bills at one time,” said Ruiz, who admitted the high costs made her rethink family planning. “The market is not designed to make sure that moms have quality child care available to them.”
Nica McCarthy, 36, a single mother of two boys younger than 5, was unable to work for months after her older son’s preschool closed in March 2020, and she now works part time while juggling distance learning for him in addition to caring for her toddler.