The coronavirus has dealt a serious blow to a number of Napa County’s preschool and daycare centers, devastating an industry unstable even before the onset of the pandemic.
Demand for the services of childcare providers is higher than ever, according to Erika Lubensky, executive director of Community Resources for Children, which connects families with childcare providers in Napa County. But the cost of sending a pre-school-aged child to a preschool or in-home childcare facility is often out of reach for working- class parents.
California has one childcare slot available for every four children requiring care, according to Lubensky, who says that affordable childcare in the Napa Valley is perhaps even less accessible because of the high cost of living. A number of Napa’s childcare providers closed following the Great Recession in 2008, and the county’s childcare landscape has not yet recovered from those losses.
Lubensky says she knows of an additional four facilities “that have basically decided to close” in the wake of deflated enrollments – a loss to the tune of 50 childcare slots. And just a few of the area preschools catering to lower-income families – many of which receive funding from the state – are back in business after shutting down because of the pandemic, Lubensky said.
Browns Valley Preschool Owner and Director Cece Woods said she has had trouble filing her open enrollment spots for the upcoming year. The preschool is at about half capacity, she said, seeing around 20 students per day instead of the 40 she’s licensed to care for. Operating at that level, it’s costing Woods $5,000 a month just to keep the daycare center open.
“Right now, I’m struggling to stay open just like any small business,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to do this. I plan on staying open, but I’m not sure what the future looks like.”
Woods’ rates for full-time childcare – five days a week – will rise to $1,000 monthly in the fall. Some of her students’ parents lost jobs and could no longer afford the cost of care; others, working from home, removed their children from the preschool in the hopes of juggling work and care.
Woods is able to cover payroll, but is relying on savings and credit cards to pay the cost of insurance, rent, materials for her students and cleaning supplies for the classrooms. Closing, she knows, would devastate the parents who continue to rely on her for their childcare.
“There are a lot of people who have to work – I have a father who is a part of Cal Fire, for instance. Could you imagine him having to stay home?” she said. “The feedback I got from parents was, ‘We are essential, we need to continue to work, and without childcare we can’t.’”
The pressure on providers to remain open is in some cases “extreme,” according to a study released in late July by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at UC Berkeley.
State guidelines for early childcare providers like Browns Valley Preschool have changed in the pandemic’s wake; groups must be no larger than 10 children. Provisions for smaller in-home providers accepting younger children, like Tami Dalen, have also changed – no more than 10 to a group, with one staff member available for every six children.
Dalen began Custom Kids Christian Preschool out of her home more than 35 years ago, when her children were preschool aged. She typically teaches cohorts of 12 at a time, but because of pandemic enrollment dropped to five or six students daily.
Like Browns Valley, many of Dalen’s clients lost their jobs in the region’s hospitality industry, and could no longer afford the cost of preschool—$60 a day, or $1,200 monthly. Still others withdrew their children out of concern over the pandemic.
In the absence of pre-pandemic level revenue, Dalen has used her savings to foot operating costs and materials – especially cleaning supplies, which Dalen needs to purchase in significant quantities but for months were almost impossible to find.
“This is not the time to run a ‘lesser’ program,” Dalen said, citing the cost of heating her pool for swim lessons and continuing to purchase toys for her students. “You want quality (when it comes to child care), and people have enough to deal with right now.”
Providers responding to the survey conducted by CSCCE said they had struggled to personally pay for the new requirements handed down to childcare facilities by the state, including heightened staffing requirements and cleaning measures. Almost half said they needed “additional guidance or resources” on regulatory changes; a third said they could not adhere to the social distancing guidelines.
“The challenging part has been trying to follow all the rules while also supporting their social and emotional development,” Napa Treehouse owner Samantha Des Jardins said. Keeping her six preschool students separate has been a challenge, especially because they so enjoy playing with each other, she said. For the time being, Treehouse’s lessons are mostly held outside, and children older than 2 years old wear masks.
“When you have a childcare provider, that’s someone that is resourceful, creative and flexible,” Des Jardins said. “I do hope the pandemic highlights the importance of early childhood education and the multitude of responsibilities that childcare providers have as essential workers.”
Demand for Des Jardins’s services – which include infant care – have skyrocketed during the pandemic. She gets two or three calls a day from parents in “desperate need” of childcare.
“These are parents that either want to start their kids in school or have nowhere to put their children as they’re getting back to work, and they don’t know what to do,” Des Jardins said, adding that she typically refers the parents to CRC. “I hear the frustration in their voices, and I feel terrible because I just can’t enroll any more (students).”
More than half of the 335 parents surveyed by First 5 Napa County at the beginning of July said they had insufficient support or no support whatsoever as a parent during the county’s shelter in place order. And with Napa Valley Unified School District’s virtual start to the new academic year, it’s not just pre-school-aged children whose days parents – especially those working outside of the home – may struggle to structure.
Existing childcare – even pre-pandemic – typically catered to parents working office jobs, Lubensky added. As it stands now, parents working office jobs aren’t the ones being called into work: it’s service, hospitality, healthcare and agricultural workers who are being asked to leave their homes. Hours and income levels for workers in those industries can make finding childcare challenging even under the most normal of circumstances, she said.
The irony, Lubensky said, was that many families were now more than ever desperate for childcare, but still could not afford them, leaving open slots at preschools and childcare centers like Browns Valley Preschool.
“As a society, we’ve made this huge appeal on getting college ready and funding college – when we haven’t even looked at how to fund preschool,” Lubensky said.. “The most vulnerable children, the ones who need stability the most, usually come from families who cannot afford a licensed childcare center.”
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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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