Coronavirus has closed more than a quarter of NC's childcare centers, but the economy can't recover without them. (Image via Shutterstock) Childcare During the Pandemic
Coronavirus has closed more than a quarter of NC's childcare centers, but the economy can't recover without them. (Image via Shutterstock)

With 20% of children in childcare ‘deserts,’ NC must rethink funding for early childhood education, experts say. 

Toshika Pratt kept the doors of her Greensboro day care open every day this year, a major accomplishment given that about three in 10 of the state’s day care centers are now closed.

In normal times, ABG Provider Services cares for 140 children, from infants through middle-schoolers for after-school care. Pratt’s center accepts childcare vouchers from lower-income families who qualify and stays open until 11 p.m. so that parents working second shifts have childcare options.

Many of her parents work in essential jobs, including healthcare or at nursing homes.

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“If we closed, a lot of the parents wouldn’t be able to work,” Pratt said. “I have a lot of parents that aren’t from Greensboro and they don’t have the same support if family were in the same town.”

Currently, 28% of the state’s childcare centers are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Childcare advocates worry that more will close and won’t be able to reopen when and if the threat of COVID-19 begins to fade, a troubling thought with researchers predicting the American economy can’t recover without childcare

It wasn’t easy for Pratt to keep the doors open of her five-star center, the highest rating in the state’s evaluation of quality child care centers. Her enrollment dropped by half. Pratt initially struggled to find enough disinfectant and masks to meet new cleaning and infection control regimens. Then there were challenges early on just buying food to serve the 70 children who continued attending during the pandemic.

Now, she’s wondering how to keep paying her teachers and cover bills with only half of her normal enrollment. The Department of Health and Human Services covered parents’ share of need-based vouchers for March, April and May; paid for NC PreK slots even as lessons were offered remotely and offered individual teachers and day care staff monthly bonuses to stay on the job through June.

“If [the state] wouldn’t have helped, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the whole staff,” Pratt said.  

She has enough to pay her staff through the end of July but doesn’t know what will happen after that.

“The business model that we have for childcare is broken.”

Childcare advocates fear that the pandemic may permanently alter the state’s fragile network of largely private in-home day cares and childcare centers watching babies and young children while their parents work.

Half of the nation’s childcare centers are at risk of permanent closure, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.

In North Carolina, 44% of day care and childcare centers are at risk of closing their doors for good.

“We are very worried that many of them will not be able to reopen,” said Michelle Hughes, the executive director of the advocacy group NC Child.

That would hamper any efforts for economic recovery, and effects would disproportionately harm women with the childcare workforce largely made up with women and mothers, more likely than fathers, ending up forgoing careers to care for young children when childcare is too expensive or untenable in a family.

Childcare centers that stayed open aren’t necessarily doing well financially, with diminished enrollments and additional expenses incurred to follow new health requirements to keep the virus at bay.  In the best of times, many childcare centers operated on razor-thin margins.

“Most of them are operating at reduced capacity and that is incredibly financially difficult for them,” Hughes said.

The NC General Assembly did earmark $20 million in emergency COVID-19 funding for early childhood education last month, a fraction of the $125 million in funding state child care advocates asked for to offset the financial blows of COVID-19.  

On the federal level, Congressional Democrats have introduced bills in the Senate and House that would inject up to $50 billion to stabilize the nation’s child care sector.  

More than 20% of NC young children live in childcare deserts.

Before COVID-19 upended life, North Carolina was already struggling to provide enough childcare slots for children, much less affordable slots.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress that analyzed the availability of childcare centers across the nation found that more than 20% of North Carolina’s young children didn’t live within 10 minutes of where families live, effectively forming childcare “deserts.” That rate drops to 12% nationally, meaning that the state is worse off than the nation as a whole.

The child-care deserts followed much of the same patterns as food deserts. Lower-income communities of color were less likely to have the same level of resources as more affluent, whiter areas.

“Rural areas are largely childcare deserts,” said Rasheed Malik, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “There’s just not many licensed childcare options for those families” 

The analysis (which includes a searchable map) shows that much of the state’s rural stretches in Eastern North Carolina and the mountains to the west are low on childcare options, while that changes in the Triangle and Charlotte metropolitan areas.

There’s also great variety in different communities. In the Triad, Winston-Salem appears to have few nearby spots for children in that city, while an hour away, in Greensboro, there appears to be adequate supplies of childcare pre-pandemic.

Availability of licensed childcare providers is just one piece of the complex networks that families with young children depend on. The cost of childcare prices many families out, and government assistance through childcare vouchers is not guaranteed for low-income families.

North Carolina parents on average spend $9,200 a year for childcare, more than tuition at the state’s public universities.

The state in April collectively had waiting lists of 16,000 children who qualify for child care vouchers but there aren’t enough funds to get them into care.

That’s why some are calling for more federal or government help, whether it’s universal Pre-K or some other approach.

“The business model that we have for childcare is broken,” Hughes said. “What it costs to provide quality care of children and ensure teachers are paid a fair wage far exceeds what parents can pay.

“We need to look at a different way of funding childcare,” she said.