A year ago, my son’s preschool closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened in mid-September 2020, but with significant reductions in the number of children served, primarily because many parents lost their jobs and no longer needed child care.
Now, as coronavirus restrictions ease in many places and more businesses are planning to reopen, parents need child care more than ever to return to the workplace.
Recent research by my colleague Bina Shrimali, our Community Development Research Manager, shows that in California, 64% of children under age six have all available parents in the labor force. Pre-pandemic, there were 3.6 children for every available child care slot, and with coronavirus closures, that number is predicted to go as high as 7.4. Additionally, a minimum wage worker in California spends, on average, 63% of their earnings on child care.
Access to affordable and high-quality child care is essential to get people back to work and kick-start our economic recovery. This is why the Community Development team at the Bank is taking a deep dive into the challenges facing the child care market as well as the investments and partnerships needed to support child care providers.
Child Care Providers are Businesses
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the business model for child care was already under financial strain. Child care providers are frequently small businesses — often run by women of color — and they face high expectations, low margins, and minimal public investment. Tuition and subsidies alone often couldn’t cover operating costs.
As child care facilities reopen, they must also navigate new expenses for protective equipment, enhanced cleaning, and other mandated modifications. This includes reduced class sizes due to the coronavirus, further straining their operating budgets.
Child care services for working families are crucial to obtaining full employment and economic well-being, and opportunities exist to bolster them through investments and partnerships.
A Bright Spot in Ventura County
To better understand these possibilities from inside the child care sector, I spoke with Jack Hinojosa, CEO of Child Development Resources of Ventura County, Inc. (CDR) in Ventura County, California. It is the fifth largest nonprofit in Ventura County and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019.
The organization provides comprehensive services to children and families in the care areas of early learning, health, and well-being while engaging parents as partners every step of the way. CDR is also the Resource & Referral agency for Ventura County, funded by the California Department of Education (CDE), Early Learning & Care Division (ELCD).
Ventura County — bordered by Los Angeles to the east, Kern County to the north, and Santa Barbara to the west — is home to approximately 851,000 residents with a poverty rate of 9.5%. Over 16% of children under age five there live in poverty.
CDR understands that maintaining a strong child care sector is critical to creating a thriving workforce, and they work to build up the financial well-being of working families through integrated programs and support. One example is its popular Parent Café, which brings together parents to build community and support one another, as parents face similar challenges, joys, and questions. During the pandemic, CDR’s Parent Café transitioned to a virtual format in both English and Spanish.
Demonstrating Agility in Times of Crisis
I asked Jack about the changes the organization has gone through since COVID-19 hit the community. He shared a number of ways they continued to provide services to those in need:
- He first shared that 2020 was starting out to be a special year for CDR, with the 55th anniversary of Head Start (of which CDR is the first and only grantee in Ventura County) and the 25th anniversary of Early Head Start. Both are U.S. Department of Health and Human Services programs serving low-income children and families. CDR serves almost 1,600 children through Head Start and Early Head Start, 4,813 children in subsidized child care programs, and in 2019 made nearly 3,000 child care referrals.
- Before the pandemic, the vast majority of CDR’s services were provided in-person at 27 Head Start centers serving communities in Ventura County. Although many of these centers were forced to close due to COVID-19, roughly 1,000 children still needed care as their parents fell into the essential worker category and leaned on CDR during the crisis.
- CDR quickly pivoted to providing all instructional staff and agency employees with laptops, iPads, cell phones, and training to continue operations in this now virtual world. CDR staff are now fully educated and comfortable using technology to stay in contact with one another and the families they serve.
- CDR is now supporting a large child care provider community (currently 688 throughout the County) by purchasing and distributing cleaning supplies, masks, diapers, and wipes. Nearly half of those providers remained open during the pandemic thanks to stipends that CDR distributed from funding received from the California Department of Education and a specific stipend grant from the City of Camarillo.
Hope for the Future
Jack is most excited that as of last August, eight of the 27 Head Start Centers reopened, with staff given three weeks of additional training. Now that Ventura County has moved from the Purple to the Red Tier effective March 17, 2021 Jack and CDR’s director of early care and education programs are excited that they will be re-opening additional Head Start/State Preschool centers in April. Staff are now trained on reopening protocols put into place to ensure the continuous health and safety of staff, children and families served, and the program plans to open all their centers for the 2021–2022 school year.
My now five-year old son is anxiously awaiting the day he can meet his kindergarten classmates in person. The past year has truly emphasized how accessible child care is critical for the vast majority of working families, including my own, to thrive in the labor force.