By: KRISTEN TAKETA, San Diego Union Tribune on December. 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed 535 child care businesses in San Diego County while simultaneously raising operating costs and shrinking revenues for an already struggling industry. The number of closures represents about 12 percent of child care providers in the county, according to a November report from the YMCA Childcare Resource Service.

“We’re really seeing that child care providers are struggling to keep their
doors open,” said Kim McDougal, executive director of the Childcare
Resource Service.

A fear of health risks is one of the main reasons child care programs have closed, a statewide survey of the programs by UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment shows. Child care providers are shouldering increased costs — paying for everything from extra cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment to outfitting their businesses to serve school-age children, McDougal said. Many child care providers, prior to the pandemic, were accustomed to serving only children up to 5 years old.

On top of increased costs, providers have had to cut classroom capacity for COVID-19 safety, so they’re enrolling and collecting fees from fewer children. And many families have stopped bringing their children to child care out of fear of getting infected. Three-quarters of open child care programs have lost income, according to the UC Berkeley survey.

“Even before COVID, we were struggling in terms of wages, in terms of
funding, and then COVID hit, and it’s even harder,” said Patricia Lozano,
executive director of Early Edge California, a nonprofit that advocates for
early-learning programs.

Closures of child care providers have raised concerns that, without further aid, the industry charged with caring for children at their most critical developmental age — and making work life manageable for parents — will capsize under the pressure of the pandemic. About 70 percent of San Diego families with children have all parents in the household working, according to a January report from the San Diego Workforce Partnership and San Diego Foundation.

Although most school districts are open for at least partial in-person instruction, the majority of students in the county — about 369,000 — are still in full-time distance learning at home, either by choice or because their schools have not yet reopened.

Nine months into the pandemic, experts say the problem of how to provide child care for all those at-home students is far from solved. Child care in California has long been unaffordable for many families.

  • Full-time center-based care typically costs from $11,400 a year for a preschooler to $17,604 for an infant, according to the Workforce Partnership and Foundation report.
  • Child care for two young children in a family of four consumes on average 40 percent of the family’s budget.
  • More than 2,500 families in the county are currently on a waitlist for a state child care subsidy.

There are likely many additional families that need child care but can’t afford it on their own and don’t meet the income requirements for a state aid, McDougal said. “That’s the kind of number we never know, is, how many that need it but can’t afford it,” McDougal said. “We think there’s a ton more families out there that are just not on that list.”

A family of four must make less than $84,822 a year to qualify for a state subsidy, according to the California Department of Education. Families who qualify are not guaranteed a subsidy.

Meanwhile government aid for child care is running dry.

Earlier this year the city and county together allocated $10 million in COVID-19 relief funds for child-care vouchers for essential workers and vulnerable populations, but those vouchers expired last month. The vouchers provided child care for 2,400 children for four and a half months, according to the Childcare Resource Service.

Some families who have the resources have come up with their own substitutions, such as starting “learning pods” or paying for an in-person academic enrichment program. McDougal said other parents have resorted to leaving their jobs to care for their children or help them with distance learning.

That burden doesn’t fall equally. A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that one in four women are considering scaling back their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19 disruptions.

About a quarter of California parents reported this summer that they were relying on other family members, friends or neighbors to watch their kids, a statewide survey of parents conducted by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network found.

About 22 percent of parents reported they did not have any child care and thus watched their children or had their spouse watch them while working.

That’s what Bonnie Jimenez, a parent of a second-grader, has had to do because her daughter’s school, Benchley Weinberger Elementary, remains indefinitely closed. Jimenez, a vocational counselor, starts working from home at 6:30 a.m. but often ends up working until as late as 10 p.m. because she also has to watch her daughter and help with distance learning, as well as take care of her 4-year-old preschooler. She received a 10 percent pay cut this year because of the pandemic, so she cannot afford any other kind of child care or help for her children.

“I would love to have a babysitter or a tutor,” Jimenez said. “I can’t afford
to now have this extra expense.”

While the news that COVID-19 vaccinations are on the way has raised hopes of an economic recovery, a comprehensive recovery isn’t possible unless more people can secure child care and be able to return to work, experts predict. “It just won’t happen without child care,” McDougal said.