Sonoma County child care system ’on brink of collapse’
The calendar is haunting Karen Crespo right now. She knows she will have to turn a page soon but isn’t sure how she will respond to what she finds.
“The free service ends July 31 where he’s going, and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Crespo said of her youngest son, Franco Uffelman, who is 7. “To send him to full-time day care would set me back. I can’t afford it.”
For months now, Crespo has relied on free child care from the North Bay Children’s Center. It opened its Steele Lane facility in northwest Santa Rosa almost immediately after Sonoma County issued its first stay-at-home order in March, expressly to serve essential workers ― workers like Crespo, a radiologic technologist at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital.
Older sons Chris, 14, and Niko, 12, could more or less fend for themselves and complete their online studies while Crespo works. But Franco needed more structure. He found it on Steele Lane. And when the child care center changed its start time from 7 to 7:30 am, endangering Crespo’s ability to make it to work for her 7:30 shift, teachers agreed to show up early to greet Franco.
Crespo is grateful for the support. But now she’s in a bind. The funding for Franco’s program, coordinated by Sonoma County’s Emergency Operations Center, is set to expire at the end of July, and Crespo currently has no suitable Plan B.
It has become a familiar quandary to parents with young children. They must work to support their families. But how is that possible when there is nowhere safe — and affordable — to send the kids? The uncertainty will continue this fall as schools across America keep their campuses closed and move students online for distance learning. And it is even more precarious for families with children under 5, many of whom are finding it hard to secure openings among a dwindling set of available slots.
“The child care system has been extremely fragile for a long time,” said Susan Gilmore, CEO and president of North Bay Children’s Center. “And now, because of COVID, it really is on the brink of collapse.”
There were 616 day care providers in Sonoma County before the coronavirus savaged the economy and forced hundreds of local child care centers and in-home providers to suspend operations, according to the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, an advocacy and coordinating group popularly referred to as the 4Cs. Nearly half, or 287, remained closed as of July 10, the most recent data point. Fourteen, the council says, are permanently shut.
The reasons aren’t hard to piece together. Before the pandemic, local child care centers averaged 24 children per site at one time, said Melanie Dodson, executive director of the 4Cs. State and county health guidelines currently restrict that number to 12. Yet other requirements, including those involving sanitization, require a robust workforce, a challenge for day care operators to pay for as their enrollment declines.
For example, the 13 child care facilities operated by North Bay Children’s Center were at 46% of typical enrollment but 113% of normal staffing, a difficult financial equation to sustain. Other centers report similarly disastrous math.
“You can’t make more widgets to make more money in child care,” Dodson said. “You’re dealing with children and families. And that continuity, and that relationship, it’s very personal, it’s social-emotional, it’s connection.”
Day care providers are also facing new costs for protective equipment such as masks and sanitary wipes, much of which is coming from the pockets of child care directors.
“I think we’re seeing an industry that was already on shaky financial ground, and was already being heavily relied on as the backbone of the economy in many ways,” said Sean Doocy, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. “That industry is still being relied on to open the economy.”
He referred to “an almost impossible situation providers have been put in.”
Doocy, along with co-authors Yoonjeon Kim and Elena Montoya, recently published a survey of more than 2,000 child care providers throughout California. They found that 49% of in-home providers and 28% of child care centers have been unable to pay themselves at some point during the shelter-in-place period. Just over a third of the home-based providers and 11% of centers have taken on personal credit card debt; 22% of the former and 19% of the latter have missed a rent or mortgage payment for their facilities.
The researchers called it “an unprecedented crisis in California child care.”