In summary

The coronavirus pandemic has decimated child care centers in California, with many closing permanently. The consequences will adversely affect children, parents, center operators and the state economy.

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Across California 8,500 licensed child care sites have shut down since the pandemic began, taking with them tens of thousands of child care slots for kids who need care while their parents work or attend school.

The decimation of the child care industry has dire implications for the state going forward: 

  • Children unable to get into licensed child care could suffer educationally and miss the stability of a safe, familiar provider.
  • Unemployed or underemployed parents now have even fewer affordable options for child care, potentially delaying their re-entry into the workforce as California struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • Thousands of women of color, who represent the majority of the child care workforce, are now out of work. 

Both the permanent and temporary closures hit an already precariously positioned child care industry suffering from chronic low pay, a lack of providers and high costs. 

“The pandemic shed this bright light on so many systems in our country that are clearly broken or poorly built before the pandemic — and child care is just one of them,” said Keisha Nzewi, director of public policy for the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, a nonprofit that helps connect families with child care providers. “In child care the problem is that although it is a public good, it’s not treated as such.

“Child care providers are paid poorly and at the same time parents cannot afford to pay more.”

Experts and advocates hope a new and record-breaking infusion of federal money will buoy the industry for now. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan President Joe Biden signed into law last week includes $39 billion to bolster the child care industry. California is set to receive $3.8 billion of that money, half of which is for stabilizing the child care system and to provide more assistance to families, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. Congress wants the states to receive the money by September but experts believe it will land sooner, possibly in the summer. States have until September of 2022 to commit the funds and an additional year to use it all. 

“The pandemic shed this bright light on so many systems in our country that are clearly broken or poorly built before the pandemic — and child care is just one of them.”

Keisha Nzewi, director of public policy for the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network

Money is expected to start flowing to providers and families before the end of this year, said Christine Johnson-Straub, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The state’s portion of the money will go to the California Department of Education, which will work with the Department of Social Services, which oversees child care licenses, to distribute the funds, Johnson-Straub said.

California has two types of child care facilities: large centers and family care homes. Centers tend to be larger and more expensive while in-home care providers, who can serve up to 8 or 14 children depending on size, accept the majority of low-income children who receive state child care subsidies.

Among in-home family child care sites, 14% shuttered — a loss of some 3,635 sites — between January 2020 and January 2021, according to newly released data from the Child Care Resource and Referral Network. Among larger centers, 33% closed, accounting for 4,873 centers. These are both permanent and temporary closures.

“There is always a need to invest more in the child care system in California,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center. “We know it’s critical for working parents and our economy. We cannot recover from this pandemic in a recession until we have a stable child care system that parents can rely on so they can return to work.”

In March 2020, when the state’s shelter-in-place order began, some parents kept their kids at home if they could, while others lost jobs and surrendered their children’s slots in child care sites. Many sites closed. When they were allowed to reopen several months later, they did so under new restrictions that limited how many children they could care for while also requiring strict disinfecting regiments and social distancing. 

“I never imagined it was going to be a year and I would lose all my staff, clients, children.”

Cynthia Bassett, child care provider in San Bernardino

In San Bernardino, child care provider Cynthia Bassett took Gov. Gavin Newsom’s advice at the outset of the pandemic and closed her in-home family child care for the first time in 21 years. Bassett is 68 and has asthma, two factors that put her in a high-risk group for COVID-19. When she hugged her little ones goodbye and shut down last March, she thought it would only be a couple of months before things returned to normal.

Now, one year later and after finally getting the vaccine, she is trying to reopen. It’s like starting out all over again, she said. None of her little charges are coming back, and only one of the four part-time staff members she had to lay off is able to return.

“I never imagined it was going to be a year and I would lose all my staff, clients, children,” said Bassett. “Now, with reopening, my concern is still finances and the disinfecting and the cleaning and the (protective gear) and even the staff. We are still dealing with the pandemic. It’s not over.”

Bad for children

Child care is part of the foundation for youth learning, according to Dorian Traube, associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

Traube studies early childhood education and said if toddlers and preschoolers are missing out on learning opportunities, it could leave some unprepared for school in the future.

“This is fueled by the American idea that child care and early education are two separate topics when in fact, child care is early education,” said Traube. “We know it’s one of the most important developmental periods.”

If toddlers and preschoolers are missing out on learning opportunities, it could leave some unprepared for school in the future.

Nzewi disagrees with the notion that families that are keeping their kids at home or cobbling together care with trusted loved ones are causing their kids to miss out on learning. But she does argue that having routine and stability is important for kids. And having stable child care provides that, especially because circumstances with family, friends and neighbors may change if they get a job or have to move or rearrange their own schedules.

“So many of us were cared for by our nanas, our titis, our nonas, our mom’s best friend, the people that our parents or families trusted the most. There is no harm there — learning happens everywhere,” she said. “Children don’t necessarily lose anything in development, but kids of many ages like to know what to expect. Stability is only a good thing for children.”

Bad for the parents (and the state economy)

Unemployed or underemployed parents now have to scramble even more to secure child care slots for their kids. That makes it harder for families, especially women, to go to or get back to work, and could impact economic growth coming out of the pandemic.

“As more and more people become vaccinated and schools start to reopen and the economy starts to move forward, it’s going to be critically important that parents have safe space for their children while they are at work,” Schumacher said. “It’s already really difficult to find affordable care, sometimes impossible if you earn low wages.

“If part of our child care supply has evaporated it may be just impossible.”

Bad for child care providers, who were already in a tough spot

Child care in California has been in a perilous position for decades. Providers operate on razor-thin margins and get paid less than living wages, while parents can hardly afford the fees. Government subsidies have not kept up with inflation, and only help a fraction of kids who qualify because the lack of providers leaves low-income families in the lurch.

“Fundamentally this is an under-resourced system that has not been invested in for decades. And what we had going into the pandemic was something that was stitched together through the hard work of a female-dominated industry (of workers who were)sacrificing their own wages to provide enough care for number of kids they could,” said Rasheed Malik, senior policy analyst for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Malik’s research has found that 6 in 10 Americans lived in a child care ‘desert’ — pre-pandemic. It wasn’t an issue only in low-income communities, but was also ubiquitous in middle-class, median-income neighborhoods. The pandemic only made that worse.

A Play set in Cynthia Bassett’s backyard in San Bernardino on March 16, 2021. Cynthia is waiting for people to enroll their children into her day care. Until then toys and play sets are unused. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Nzewi points to child care’s slavery era roots when white children were cared for by enslaved Black women. After the Civil War, mostly Black domestic workers continued to care for children and often were paid in hand-me-downs or food instead of in dollars.  Eventually, the ranks of domestic workers grew to include Asian women and Latinas but the structure remained the same: little pay or recognition.

“Primary providers of care, whether it’s for children or elderly, (are)Latina, Black, Asian and immigrant women, and it is okay in our country to pay them far less for their work,” Nzewi said. “Their work is not monetarily valued in a significant way and what that means for us is, those are the women who are caring for our children and those are the women we woefully underpay and continue to do so quite easily.”

The median hourly child care wage was $13.43 in 2019 in California, according to The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. The result:  17% of California child care workers live in poverty, the Center at UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Workforce Index found. Now roughly one in four child-care jobs in California have been lost, said Schumacher, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

For Bassett, who is waiting for children to enroll in her program, help can’t come soon enough.

She eventually qualified for unemployment,  but it didn’t cover all of her expenses.

“I was very depressed at times because I was isolated,” she said. “I was used to having 14 little ones running around, and all of a sudden ‘Poof!’ it’s just me by myself.”

children and covid-19

Burgeoning child care union secures COVID-19 relief funding approval

The state Senate budget committee approved disbursement of $144 million in federal funds to give child care providers some financial relief in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If approved by the Legislature, it will be a major win for Child Care Providers United, which is still negotiating a master contract with California.

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Elizabeth Aguilera

Elizabeth Aguilera is an award-winning multimedia journalist who covers health and social services for CalMatters. She joined CalMatters in 2016 from Southern California Public Radio/KPCC 89.3 where she...