From left: Pamela Regala-Medeiros, Makinya Ward (owner), and Joy Alvarado of Kids Konnect, a child care center in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When Governor Gavin Newsom issued the state’s first shelter-in-place order in March, Diana Brown had to decide fast whether to keep her daycare business open. Child care was included as an essential business, but there wasn’t much guidance from the state about how to stay open safely. After talking with other providers, Brown decided to tell her families that she was closing temporarily.

“A business I had built for years came crashing down in an hour,” she said.  “I wasn’t sure what it was going to mean for the future.” 

Brown was able to reopen the daycare in her Trestle Glen home at the beginning of June, but with fewer children. Like other local child care providers, Brown had to invest in outdoor tents, hand-washing stations, and personal protective equipment in order to reopen her business. And there’s no way of knowing what the future brings.

“This is stressful for so many reasons,” said Brown, who, in spite of the challenges, is financially secure. “This isn’t what I signed up for when I started to do child care, and I have it so much easier than most.”

Quality child care is essential to the overall economy, but the industry is taking an outsized hit during the pandemic. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington D.C., reports that the cost of running a child care facility has increased by 47-70% during the pandemic, while enrollment is just a third of what it was last year.

Resources for Child Care Providers

Personal Paycheck Protection loans: Here are instructions for how to apply for a federal PPP loan for small businesses, including eligibility guidelines. (Note: At press time, this site had not been updated to reflect the program’s extension.)   

State resources: Read guidelines for care providers from the California Community Care Licensing Division, which administers licensing and enforces safety regulations. 

County resources: A list of early childhood development referral agencies in Alameda County, with links to training and professional development resources for care providers. 

California Child Care Providers United: The union representing child care workers offers information and resources on their website.

Californians for Quality Early LearningTraining, advocacy and resources for child care providers in California

Child care providers, with a median income of about $24,000 a year, are also among the lowest paid workers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up more than 90% of child care providers, and women of color are disproportionately employed in child care jobs. They’re on the front line during the pandemic, caring for the children of other essential workers. They had little job security or public investment prior to the pandemic, but now the child care field is more unstable than ever. 

The Alameda County Emergency Child Care Response Team tracks the number of families using child care and the providers that are open. According to the most recent data, for October, demand is down across the county. Only 66% of home-based family child care programs (with a capacity of up to 12 children) are open, while 56% of licensed child care centers are operating.  The same data shows that most families using child care during the pandemic are healthcare or other essential workers. Other working families have pulled their children out of care while they work from home.

No care, no recovery

Providers and advocates worry that with so many closures and laid off child care workers, there won’t be enough care available when parents return to working  away from home. Once a facility closes, it can’t be replaced overnight. Licensing takes about a year to complete.

“Without adequate child care, there will be no economic recovery,” said Kym Johnson, director of Bananas, a child care resource and referral agency in Oakland. With so many women leaving their jobs to care for young and school-age children during the pandemic, Johnson worries that a lack of child care will hold those women back. “We’re not going to get back to the highest level of economic activity if half of our workforce can’t work.”

The child care industry needs help to stay afloat, but the latest federal COVID-19 relief package approved this week by Congress doesn’t go far enough, said Makinya Ward, administrator of Kids Konnect Preschools, which has a location near the Oakland Zoo. The stimulus package would provide $10 billion for the child care industry, including $250 million for Head Start, the federal government’s early childhood education program for low-income families. The rest will go toward the Child Care & Development Block Grant program, to fund grants for child care providers for payroll, purchasing sanitization supplies, and rent.

“The dollar amount falls short of the funds that the house had earmarked,” Ward said. “And if this is for the entire nation, I’m thinking it will be minimal [for individual providers].”

The federal stimulus package would also extend the Personal Paycheck Protection loan program to small businesses, including child care centers, but advocates say these loans tend to be utilized by large facilities, and not owners of small family child care businesses. Ashley Williams, senior policy analyst at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, said that women of color were underrepresented among providers who accessed the first round of PPP loans in the summer.

“The process was confusing and a lot of these folks don’t have relationships with a banking institution,” she said. “A very diverse group of women of color-owned businesses are struggling.”

Many of these business owners were already operating close to the poverty line, Williams said. The pandemic is only increasing instability for people who were living without health insurance and access to paid sick leave.

“The virus has had such a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities,” she said. “What we’re seeing is fear, people trying to run a business out of their homes and not knowing what will happen to their families.”

Child care provider Nancy Harvey, in front of her West Oakland home and child care center. Credit: Amir Aziz

Child care as an industry is sustaining a massive blow that the federal relief package funds will not restore, said Dave Esbin, executive director of Californians for Quality Early Learning (CQEL), a membership advocacy and support organization for child care  providers. Esbin calls the stimulus funds a “nod” to workers who have operated through the pandemic at significant risk to themselves.

While the $10 billion from the federal stimulus should help offset lost revenue from hundreds of thousands of child care slots across the country that weren’t filled during the pandemic, said Esbin, it still isn’t enough. “Just in California we’ve lost about 654,000 spots,” he says. “While we are thankful for the funding, it is woefully insufficient to meet the ever-growing need of sustaining our child care.”

In addition to money, child care providers need protection from the virus. Esbin and other advocates say providers should receive priority for the vaccine, before other essential workers who don’t work in direct contact with other people. 

Child care providers are currently second in line for the vaccine in a big group behind health care workers and residents and staff of nursing homes. This second group also includes teachers, food and agricultural workers, postal and public transit workers, and people who work in grocery stores.  

“We must protect those who care for our young children,” said Esbin. “It is critical at this time to prioritize getting vaccinations to early educators as soon as possible to turn around this dire situation.”

Taking a financial hit

Unlike Brown, the child care provider who operates out of her home, Ward was able to keep her Oakland facility open when parents made a plea.

“We did a survey and many of our parents are essential workers,” said Ward. “One nurse in particular said if we closed, she didn’t know what she’d do. She was the inspiration for us to keep going. We just rolled up our sleeves and cleaned like crazy.” 

When enrollment dropped to 60% of capacity, Ward had to furlough some of her teachers but was able to continue paying for their health insurance. 

“It’s difficult to find teachers in early childhood, so if I release them, there’s no guarantee I’ll get them back,” she said. “Also, they’ve weathered this. I need to do what I can to make sure they have employment.”

She increased rates, persuaded her landlord to cut the rent in half, received a grant and took out a federal PPP loan to avoid laying off any staff. 

Last year, the newly formed Child Care Providers United union won the right to negotiate with the state over wages and health benefits. Now part of SEIU Local 99, CCPU represents family child care workers, who are among the lowest paid employees in the nation. 

“People have to understand that you can’t expect to have professionals being paid at high schooler rates,” said Nancy Harvey, who owns Lil Nancy’s Primary Schoolhouse in West Oakland and serves as the Alameda County bargaining representative for CCPU.

Harvey credits the union with providing masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies for providers throughout the pandemic. Like many providers, Harvey is in her 50s and considers herself high risk. She has a policy of not allowing children with visible symptoms into her space. “We’re playing Russian roulette when we open our doors. We could get this,” she said. “I don’t care if the runny nose is from teething or a cold, they can’t come in.”

Ward recently created a waiting list for Kids Konnect in Oakland. After dropping by 40%, enrollment has picked back up. But the same isn’t true for many other providers. 

Tarsha Jordan, author of “Bonita The Bumble Bee and the Quarantine,” a children’s book for learning about COVID-19. Credit: Amir Aziz

Tarsha Jordan is licensed to care for up to 14 children in her family day care in Temescal, but she’s only been seeing a fraction of that. “On a good day I have two or three,” she said. “It’s been a huge hit.”

Jordan has been busy, nonetheless. She created a YouTube channel with educational content for small children and their parents to view together. And she’s published a children’s book, “Bonita the Bumblebee,” to help parents talk about COVID-19 with their children. 

“It has been a way to continue to reach out to the children that will hopefully keep them engaged and on track,” she said. “We don’t want to come out of this with everybody so behind.” 

Children playing at Kids Konnect, a childcare center in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Children who don’t attend child care or preschool are potentially missing out on the benefits of early education. Like educators at the K-12 level, child care providers worry that an extended period away from other children and teachers could set preschoolers back developmentally. 

“We’re needed,” said Ward. “We’re part of the financial health of America and we’re preparing the next generation for school. This is important.”

Hanging on through winter

At Brown’s family day care, most of the day is spent outside. Naps are indoors, on mats set six feet apart with the windows open. Like other providers, Brown  visually inspects each child at drop-off for any sign of illness. Pick-ups are staggered so parents don’t run into one another. Providers also wear masks all day and wash each toy after it has been touched.

The CDC recommends that children two years of age and older wear a mask around others, but some providers said that while they will help a child wear a mask when parents request it, they will not force the issue. This can present a problem for providers who care for younger children. Brown cares for children under two years old, but some of those children have older siblings in preschool.

“Some of my daycare kids have older siblings with symptoms. Then my kids get sick from the older kids,” she said. “I’m a 55-year-old woman with asthma. I’m opening myself up to this.”

About four months into the pandemic, Jordan, the Temescal child care provider, began hearing about other providers who were closing. “They were selling equipment, play structures, mats. They couldn’t stick it out,” she said. 

Now, she herself is dipping into savings to stay afloat. “I don’t take it lightly or for granted that I’m sitting here having this conversation on this side. I feel fortunate to have the two or three children to care for.”

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Kate Rix is a freelance reporter based in Oakland. She covers education, equity and vulnerable populations. After receiving her Master’s in journalism from U.C. Berkeley, Kate covered criminal law for The Recorder newspaper in San Francisco and was a regular contributor to Scholastic Teacher and Administrator magazines. Kate grew up in Oakland and is proud to witness the city’s continued role as an epicenter for activism, social entrepreneurship and social justice movements.