Finding day care was already a 'confusing and frustrating maze.' Coronavirus made it worse.

·12 min read

HONOLULU – Little did Joanna Lara know she was supposed to start thinking about child care before her son was even born. That the waitlists would be so endless and widespread. That the sticker shock would be so, well, shocking.

By the time her son, now 3, was a few months old, Lara was at a loss for what to do. The 27-year-old social worker in Hawaii was just kicking off her career and still earning entry-level wages. Quality child care cost more than she could afford. Plus, even if she could figure out a way to pay, she'd have to wait for longer than a year to get her hands on a spot.

She relied on friends for a while and eventually found an informal home day care. The provider wasn’t licensed, but at least it was reasonably priced. “At the time, I was so desperate,” Lara said. “I was like, ‘This will do.’”

That arrangement sufficed until COVID-19 hit. The day care closed temporarily, and once it reopened Lara didn’t feel comfortable sending her son to a place that wasn’t regulated. There was no way of ensuring the provider was sanitizing properly, she said. What if her toddler got sick or brought home germs? Lara lives with someone who has health problems.

So she went back to the beginning of her child care search. Back to the sticker shock, the waitlists, the desperation. Because she was looking for a regulated and, therefore, more expensive day care, she also had to contend with a new headache: securing financial aid.

For parents across the country, the process of finding and signing up for child care – and the government subsidies that help them afford it – has become more overwhelming than ever before. Quality early-learning options are in short supply across the country. Centers are understaffed, and case managers are overextended. Many families lack the time and savvy needed to land a seat at the programs that do exist.

First, there’s the hassle of figuring out what’s available: Reliable, go-to directories listing up-to-date openings are rare, as are clear ratings of a program's quality. Then there’s the time-consuming task of calling or visiting each of those providers to see where there are vacancies, filling out applications and, sometimes, going through interviews. Then the months- or even years-long waitlists. Preschool admissions can be cutthroat.

And for many low- and middle-income parents, there’s the added step of figuring out and applying for financial aid, which typically requires its own mishmash of procedures and paperwork.

“Given today’s technology, it should be as easy to find child care as it is to make a dinner reservation,” said Cara Sklar, the deputy director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Instead, Lara said, “it feels like you’re submitting an application into outer space.”

More: Denver has a strict vaccine mandate for teachers, plus masks. It's keeping kids in school.

Child care tax credits don't make enrollment any easier

Child care and preschool admissions were hard to navigate before the pandemic began.

For many parents, early-learning options simply didn’t exist: A little more than half of Americans lived in areas without sufficient child care before COVID-19 hit, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Elsewhere, the admissions process was often, as one 2009 report put it, “a confusing and frustrating maze.” The report, based on interviews with 5,000 parents living in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods, called the city's confusing early-learning system a barrier that discouraged families from signing up for preschool. Many parents got too overwhelmed by the burdensome paperwork or simply didn't understand what their options were.

Even Head Start, the federally funded early-childhood program for poor families, could be a hard nut to crack. For one, many low-income families’ incomes weren’t low enough to qualify for the program. For another, many of the families that did qualify were discouraged by the arduous process of verifying their income. A study found that a quarter of the families applying for a spot in one of New Orleans' public early-learning programs in 2016 didn’t complete the income-verification step.

Child care deserts: COVID-19 made them worse, leaving working parents to scramble

Securing a spot in a city or state's universal prekindergarten program often wasn’t any easier: A 2019 study focused on Boston’s program found low-income families of color, as well as those whose first language isn’t English, applied at lower rates than their more privileged counterparts.

Financial-aid hurdles exacerbated the problem: Out of every seven children who were eligible for child care subsidies, just one actually got that aid, according to Sklar.

The pandemic has compounded the challenges. Now, not only do parents have to be extra selective to ensure their child is safe, but they also have fewer providers to choose from.

Child care centers and preschools have shut down in droves, many of them permanently. In a survey conducted when COVID-19 first hit, 2 in 5 providers said they were confident they'd have to close down for good without additional funding. According to a more recent survey, 4 in 5 child care centers are understaffed, with staff-to-student ratios that prevent them from serving as many children as before. Waitlists in many areas have become even more widespread.

The child tax credits families are now receiving help alleviate financial pressures, but they do little in the way of simplifying the enrollment process.

“We started with a lack of capacity,” Sklar said, “and now there are even fewer providers and educators able to meet demand.”

Understaffed day cares: Parents desperately need child care. But centers are struggling to retain workers.

‘Most people don’t have their life so planned out’

Enrolling in an elementary school is relatively easy. “After about a 10-minute process at the school, or maybe even online, the child is set for the next 13 years,” Sklar said. That’s because K-12 education is treated as a basic right – a public good.

That isn’t the case for early-childhood education. “Ultimately, the patchwork system exists because there seems to be this fundamental belief that women should be home with their children,” said Wendy Simmons, executive director of New Haven Children's Ideal Learning District, a Connecticut initiative for quality child care and early education. In New Haven, roughly 2,500 children lack access to such offerings.

In Connecticut, Simmons said, families have three main routes they can take when looking for child care. One: They can ask neighbors and friends. Two: They can do their own research, perhaps scouring the directories compiled by various accreditation organizations to find programs that are a good fit. Three: They can call 211, where they can get a list of options after specifying their ZIP code and other criteria.

But what if a family is new to town or doesn’t speak English? What if parents aren’t savvy enough to parse through directories and scrutinize program offerings? What if they don’t have the time or energy?

“It’s really, really complicated,” Simmons said, noting the application season for some programs kicks off a year before the child is slated to enroll. “You have to have the mental space and time to be planning a year in advance. ... And the most under-resourced, overburdened families have to prove everything."

Back in Hawaii, Lara felt that pressure. She eventually found a spot at a child care center, but it cost more than $1,000 a month. Then Hawaii, like many states, increased the income threshold needed to qualify for child care subsidies during the pandemic. So she applied.

Joanna Lara, 27, plays with her 3-year-old son at a park in Honolulu.
Joanna Lara, 27, plays with her 3-year-old son at a park in Honolulu.

But there were piles of paperwork for which she had to gather all kinds of information – her income and assets, plus information verifying her employment and her son’s enrollment at the center. She spent weeks sifting through and printing out documents. Then she had to do an interview.

It took six months before she finally heard back. During that time, she had to pay the full tuition. “I remember … being so frustrated, just wishing that I knew all this was coming,” Lara said. “Most people don’t have their life so planned out.”

Kira Lee, another mother in Hawaii, dealt with similar headaches when trying to find care for her two children, ages 2 and 5. A social worker and a teacher, she and her husband live with their kids in a single bedroom in a house they rent with two bachelors. Their money is tight, as is their time.

When the couple’s older child, a boy, turned 3 months, Lee realized just how complicated and expensive it is to navigate the early-learning landscape. She really had prepared only for giving birth. “When you’re a new mom, everything’s about the labor, but really that’s just a moment,” she said. “All the postpartum stuff, you don’t really get to prepare for that.”

She learned about child care options through word of mouth and the local child care referral agency. Then she began going to open houses and submitting applications. In many cases, she had to pay $50 or $100 just to be put on the waitlist, at least one of which was 18 months long. “It’s like filling out college applications,” said Lee, 36, who ended up putting her career on hold to care for her son.

Few of the providers that did have openings met her and her husband's criteria. Some were too expensive, costing close to $2,000 a month. Some were unregulated and offered little more than babysitting. Some were too structured – Lee, who’s Native Hawaiian, wanted her son to receive an education that emphasized Hawaiian values, the environment, social-emotional learning and free play.

Lee considers her family privileged because, after jumping around from place to place, they finally landed a spot at a center that meets all their needs – it’s affordable, it’s licensed and it prioritizes all the values that are important to them. Their daughter now attends the center, too.

But, she says, finding quality child care shouldn’t require privilege.

Lindsey McCallum, 37, a bartender in Las Vegas, has had to postpone her return to work because reliable child care options that accommodate her schedule are limited. McCallum and her husband don’t have family who live in their area and can take care of their newborn daughter, who’s a few months old.

McCallum has gotten a few leads on potential programs, but the process of vetting providers is daunting, especially as COVID-19 cases surge. She also dreads the process of overcoming waitlists and filling out applications: She's heard the horror stories from fellow moms.

McCallum, who doesn’t have siblings, always wanted to have at least two kids, but the child care woes have her reevaluating that possibility. “Even thinking about having a second child, (this process) really prevents us from considering that right now,” she said. “We already held off on having kids for so long, probably because we knew (finding child care) would be so hard.”

Demystifying the process

Chicago used to have two main early-learning systems. One, which was run by the city, involved independent, center-based programs, while the other involved district-run prekindergarten classrooms. The two systems used different applications processes, meaning a parent could be put on the waitlist for a school-based pre-K spot and never know there were openings at, say, a church across the street from the school, said Tracy Occomy Crowder, a deputy director at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a nonprofit.

The burden of providing all the documentation required to enroll was frustrating, if not demoralizing. Social Security numbers. Two forms of identification or two pieces of mail. Income verification. A birth certificate. All those requirements are a turnoff for immigrant families, even if the child and their immediate family are in the country legally.

“The confusion is one thing, but the fear alone has been one of the barriers in the Latino community,” Occomy Crowder said. “People are kind of like, ‘That’s all right, I can just wait until I put them in the school and they’re not asking for my whole life story.'"

COFI found widespread need for a “one-stop model” where parents can get all the guidance, resources and support they need for child care. Chicago has since moved in that direction, which has helped to expand access significantly.

Similar initiatives are underway in other parts of the country. In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, Simmons and her team are designing a platform where, as with the Common App for colleges, families can look up their options, compare application requirements and upload documents.

Another strategy that has helped simplify enrollment for families in Chicago: Parent ambassadors go door-to-door explaining the importance of early learning and helping with enrollment.

Research underscores the simple power of reaching out to parents. The study on New Orleans’ early-childhood system, for example, found text-message reminders increased the rate at which Head Start applicants completed the income-verification step by roughly 10 percentage points.

In Washington, D.C., the city advertises universal prekindergarten on public transportation and the radio, phone-banking and partnering with local nonprofits in an effort to get the word out to needy families. It has a centralized, online application system, plus walk-in centers where parents can get help applying for a spot, ensuring the services are available in a variety of languages. Now, parents in communities with more Black families and single-parent households are less likely to be waitlisted than those in more privileged areas, said Erica Greenberg, who co-wrote a recent study.

But what if all of early-childhood education were treated like its K-12 counterpart? What if parents didn’t have to contend with fees and waitlists and paperwork? What if they didn’t have to make their way through a maze just to land a spot?

"We don't treat early-childhood education as the public good that it is, and that's not an extreme idea," said Sklar, of New America. The pandemic has underscored the consequences of a fragmented child care system, and policy experts like Sklar are hopeful that revelation will give momentum to efforts to make the early learning system look more like K-12 schools. "Now, more than ever, the importance of child care is at the forefront of people's minds."

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Daycare, affordable childcare challenges made worse by COVID pandemic

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