Subscribe
Teacher Amelia Ziraldo, left, reaches to pull down a tree branch for her students to swing from at Storybook Village Preschool in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Is the pandemic the tipping point needed to improve Sonoma County’s child care network?

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.

Leela Morena Pena, 3, left, and Maya James, 4, do activities at their desks at Little Wildflowers Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Leela Morena Pena, 3, left, and Maya James, 4, do activities at their desks at Little Wildflowers Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

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.

Little Wildflowers Preschool co-owner Evelyn Contreras shows Leela Morena Pena, 3, how to use tongs to put leprechaun gold into a pot at the school in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Little Wildflowers Preschool co-owner Evelyn Contreras shows Leela Morena Pena, 3, how to use tongs to put leprechaun gold into a pot at the school in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

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.

Teacher Amelia Ziraldo, left, reaches to pull down a tree branch for her students to swing from at Storybook Village Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Teacher Amelia Ziraldo, left, reaches to pull down a tree branch for her students to swing from at Storybook Village Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

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.

Insight: Life After The Pandemic

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This debut edition, publishing in print on March 28, is focused on stories examining how our lives will be different after the pandemic abates. Look for the next Insight section in late June.

Read all the stories here.

“I feel desperate and hopeless,” she said. “I applied everywhere I could think of to get my kids in care, and I couldn't get any response from anyone.”

Casey Schmidt, owner of Petaluma Village Preschool talks with a child in the playground space at the school in Petaluma, Calif., on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Casey Schmidt, owner of Petaluma Village Preschool talks with a child in the playground space at the school in Petaluma, Calif., on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Her parents live nearby, but they have health issues and at most can contribute two days a week to help with child care.

“It doesn’t give me much time to earn a living, much less advance my career as I’d planned,” McCarthy said.

Before the pandemic, McCarthy worked full time as a designer for an architect, with ambition to become a licensed architect herself. However, with child care duties around the clock, on top of working, there’s no time to study for her architect license.

She lived in France for a decade before moving back to Santa Rosa in 2017. The support for working parents was different overseas, where child care was available for her eldest son four days a week.

Her monthly bill was only 23 euros (about $27 at that time). In comparison, monthly rates for full-time child care in Sonoma County range from $1,000 to $1,600.

“It's so cheap in France because it's subsidized,” McCarthy said about child care. “I don’t see how it could ever be affordable without being subsidized.”

Casey Schmidt, owner of Petaluma Village Preschool, helps direct student Kutter Lanker, 4, in the playground space at the school in Petaluma, Calif., on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Casey Schmidt, owner of Petaluma Village Preschool, helps direct student Kutter Lanker, 4, in the playground space at the school in Petaluma, Calif., on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

The issue was addressed by President Joe Biden, who earlier this month signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The $1.9 trillion stimulus package also includes $39 billion earmarked for child care.

Local providers will benefit from the American Rescue Plan, although it’s unclear when the funds will arrive in Sonoma County or how much will be allocated, according to 4Cs Public Policy Director Lara Magnusdottir. The federal funds must be released to the states before being sent to counties and contractors.

California is expected to receive nearly $3.8 billion in child care assistance and stabilization funds, according to Williams, with the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

“The American Rescue Plan is an important step in delivering relief to child care programs, but we have to remember that California child care infrastructure was not stable before the pandemic,” she said.

Tanner Jeffrey, 4, plays with magnetic tiles at his desk at Little Wildflowers Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Tanner Jeffrey, 4, plays with magnetic tiles at his desk at Little Wildflowers Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins, a mother of three children, said she’s worried yet hopeful for local child care providers.

“I’m hopeful that the severity of the situation will be a call to action — and we’ll finally recognize how critical child care is to our workforce, and to our local economy,” Hopkins, who serves on the First 5 Sonoma County Commission, said in an email.

The near future for local child care depends on three steps, according to Dodson, 4Cs executive director: coronavirus vaccinations; loosening of occupancy limits once it’s safe to do so; and grants for providers, not loans.

Funding would make a difference at Storybook Village Preschool in Santa Rosa, where owner Nicole Monachello said a federal PPP loan was critical to staying afloat.

“If we were able to get government funding to help with the margin and help with expenses I would be able to lower the tuition for families, and I would be able to also increase payroll and pay teachers more what they deserve,” said Monachello, a single mother who has run the preschool for two years.

Monachello commended 4Cs for providing support but was critical of government officials’ pandemic guidance to stay open when there’s lower capacity, less income and more overhead. She described it as a “we need you but we don't care if you're OK” approach. “It is a lot of pressure,” she said.

Storybook Village emphasizes social learning and community building and has a waitlist of babies, toddlers and children in need of care.

“It makes me sad that some parents can’t go to certain programs because of that price tag for quality care, because all children need quality care,” she said.

Preschool teacher Chelsea Wirtz leads students in a song where they pretend to be sleeping fish at Storybook Village Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Preschool teacher Chelsea Wirtz leads students in a song where they pretend to be sleeping fish at Storybook Village Preschool in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

Casey Schmidt, 40, has run Petaluma Village Preschool for 10 years and also managed to keep her facility afloat with a PPP loan. However, some of her fellow preschool owner operators have closed because of financial loss during the pandemic.

“With all the other schools closing and nowhere to put kids, everyone’s waiting lists are huge,” Schmidt said.

Following the 2017 wildfires, the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber partnered with local child care agencies to make the case from a business perspective that policy changes and investments are needed to develop and sustain child care centers.

Studies indicate that investment in early childhood education brings “a better return than the stock market,” according to Ananda Sweet, vice president of public policy and workforce development at the chamber.

Sweet said she’s hopeful for the future of child care in Sonoma County as there’s more interest from the state and federal government.

“The silver lining in this crisis when it comes to child care — as painful as it's been — is that there is a much broader, shared understanding of the need and what happens to your community when parents don't have access to child care,” Sweet said.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette