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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.”

Their findings aren’t statistics for Renee Whitlock. They are her reality.

Whitlock and her business partner, Jenny Kenyon, both have been in the field for about 20 years. They opened their first child care center in Hidden Valley in 2007. Before the pandemic hit, their company, Child Family Community, had 26 employees serving 150 children across three sites.

They hope to have all three up and running on Aug. 10. But last week they were operating just one site, for 17 kids. They currently have three employees. All the tuition money is going toward teachers and rent. Whitlock and Kenyon haven’t made a dime in months. In fact, they are spending out of pocket for cleaning supplies and snacks. Whitlock estimates they have lost $400,000 in income.

“We are being asked to probably have our expenses increase by 50 to 75%,” she said. “But parents can’t pay any more. They are in the same boat. It’s really kind of this circular challenge.”

As the numbers suggest, Whitlock isn’t an outlier. And this implosion in the child care industry is having impacts on multiple fronts. Start with child care workers, a group that was barely surviving financially before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

“The child care industry as a whole has largely been subsidized by the labor of women of color, for decades,” Doocy said.

Before the pandemic, more than half of the early educators in California required some sort of social safety net assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid, Doocy said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for American child care workers is $11.42.

It’s an incongruous status level when you consider the cognitive research suggesting 85 to 90% of brain development occurs during the first five years of life. In essence, we are asking child care workers to handle one of the most critical tasks in our culture — to help raise capable and well-adjusted kids — and we are paying them slightly more than minimum wage to do it.

“There’s these amazing human beings that are doing this work every day, predominately Latina, teachers who are going to the JC and getting these credits, and they’re not recognized for the value of their work,” Dodson said. “Child care is not babysitting. This is important work that we’re doing.”

It shouldn’t be a shock that many of those employees, especially older ones, are heavily weighing the risks of the coronavirus. The UC Berkeley survey found 62% of currently open centers have staff members who are not working because of health concerns. Older child care workers are retiring at rates higher than usual, Doocy said.

“You hear the teachers say, ‘No, no, no, we can’t go back to the classrooms.’ But then we’re turning around and saying, ‘Hey, child care, you all need to be open,’” Dodson said.

This economic gloom would be troubling in any industry. But child care plays an critical role in supporting the U.S. economy.

Both parents work in nearly two out of three families comprised of married couples with children, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2019. And as of 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, about 18 million American children were living in homes with just one parent. That makes for a lot of moms and dads who are utterly dependent on child care in order to earn a living.

That’s why Crespo is so worried about Aug. 1, when Franco’s free program ends.

“I feel like I’m trapped, and may need to leave him home with his brothers,” she said. “I know they’ll take care of him. But they’re all supposed be doing school work, and I’m at work. It’s really an awful feeling. I don’t know where this is taking us.”

Crespo is not alone. Closed-down child care centers and mandated enrollment reductions add up to fewer spaces for Sonoma County children. Dodson said the center-based programs here currently have only 20% of the slots that were available for infants at the beginning of March, 11% of the preschool slots and 13% of the school-aged slots.

The numbers are much better for in-home facilities: 62% of slots available. But in-home operators are very concerned about their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, according to Doocy’s team. A continued spike in cases could knock many of them out of the game, too.

As it is, openings are harder and harder to come by. According to the 4Cs, of the 329 child care facilities still open in its coverage area (most, but not all, of Sonoma County), about 55% have no vacancies.

“I mean, it’s really hard when it comes down to finding affordable child care, or even just finding a facility that will take new kids,” said Xiomara Gonzalez, who lives near Coddingtown with her husband, Marcel ― both work full time ― and their two children. “A lot aren’t taking new enrollment.”

As with most aspects of this pandemic and its wake, the most vulnerable communities are getting hit the hardest. With enrollment limited, many child care providers have raised tuition, pricing out poorer families.

It all begins to sound like a ticking time bomb. Government officials and business owners are hoping to reopen the economy again soon. Now many people worry that if it actually happens this fall, there simply won’t be enough qualified child care to support a full workforce.

There are trickles of relief. Child care centers have been eligible for those $600 weekly CARES Act checks. (In-home providers report difficulty receiving that money.) Sonoma County and First 5 Sonoma County, a nonprofit that supports programs stressing the important of early education, funded 88 child care slots in the county through May 1; after that, they transferred the spaces to the state voucher program. First 5 California has donated $4 million statewide.

That money isn’t nearly enough. Many in the industry are banking on the Child Care Is Essential Act. Authored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, it would make $50 billion available to child care providers across the country. The bill is currently being debated in Congress.

Lisa Pheatt didn’t mention that legislation. But she knows the value of child care. Pheatt is an attorney who works in local government. Her husband, Eric, is a software engineer. They have three children. The younger two, 5-year-old Helen and 2-year-old Rex, had just started at Child Family Community on Fulton Road when the pandemic hit.

Since then, Lisa Pheatt has mostly been at home with the kids. She has had to take less complicated, less exciting work assignments so that she might carve out time for the children. She feels she lacks the conflict-resolution skills she has seen among Whitlock’s staff, and wonders if Rex’s speech delay is prolonged when he’s stuck at home. Pheatt knows she can’t be her best version of a mother when she is filling so many roles.

“They deserve so much more investment than we’ve been giving them,” she said of her children’s helpers. “Access to this kind of quality child care should be more widely available. It’s quite a privilege for my kids, for my ability to work and my family’s overall state of affairs. There’s no mystery about this. If kids can be in child care, parents can work and improve their quality of life.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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