State reopening plans collide with shuttered child-care centers

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The reopening plan that Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker announced this week won’t help Elle Balabanis get back to work any time soon.

Balabanis, a sales representative for a biomedical company, had to slash her hours when her 4-year-old’s day care in Newton, Massachusetts, shut down in March. Governor Baker has closed child care centers for everyone but essential workers until the end of June and the state is still developing guidelines on how to open them back up.

Until her day care can operate again, the 42-year-old single mom will have to sacrifice work to watch her child, regardless of her state loosening other lockdown guidelines. “I’ll be as aggressive as possible at home over the phone,” Balabanis said, “but I’m going to see a decline in pay if I can’t actually go into the field and recruit new business.”

As states around the country attempt to restart their economies, lack of child care will continue to keep some people — mostly women — from getting back to work. The country was already facing a day care shortage before coronavirus forced 60% of centers to close, according to a survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Only 27% said they could survive a closure of a month. Even with state and local restrictions on businesses easing, lack of demand due to millions of parents working from home and millions more out of work means many will never reopen.

Before coronavirus quarantines and lockdowns, 2 million parents made career sacrifices due to lack of adequate or affordable child care, a 2016 study by the Center for American Progress found. Women disproportionately take the hit. Even in two-parent households in which both parties work full time, mothers perform the majority of child-rearing duties, according to Pew Research.

During the pandemic this divide has been exacerbated. A survey from the Boston Consulting Group found working mothers are now spending 65 hours per week on child care and household duties, 15 hours more per week than fathers. Almost half of the parents surveyed said their ability to perform at work had decreased because of these additional responsibilities.

Adelina Parker is one of those people. The 24-year-old has cut back her hours as a project manager at a family-run construction company to take care of her 5-month-old son. She's also shelved a side business planning events. “It's not sustainable to be feeding your baby in one arm and trying to conduct a conference call in the other,” she said. Parker's husband works for a heating and air conditioning company that has kept operations open throughout the pandemic, so she had no choice but to step in.

In Utah, where the Parkers live, many child care providers never shut down, but a quarter of licensed centers still remain closed, even as other parts of the state’s economy open up. After a seven week maternity leave, Parker had been taking her baby to work, but had hoped to find something more permanent soon. Now those options are limited.

“The pandemic has focused the nation’s attention on the fact that access to child care is a really critical part of our economic health,” said Ami Gadhia, the policy chief for Child Care Aware, an industry advocacy group. She added that without emergency funding many providers will be forced to close permanently, citing a survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children that estimates up to 63% of the industry will go out of business without help from Congress.

Kaitlin Robbins, a Denton, Texas-based fitness instructor with a 10-month-old, worries when she’s called back to work she’ll have to make a tough choice. If the studio where she works reopens before her day care, she’ll either have to quit working or put her daughter “into a program I’m not super comfortable with,” Robbins said. “And if I don’t find child care, I have to figure out if my job will still be there in six months.”

For now, some parents are seeking alternative solutions. UrbanSitter, an app that connects parents with nannies and sitters, has seen user spikes in cities that have eased social distancing measures, like Dallas, Houston and Orlando. “I think we’re going to see parents opting out of preschool or day care and try to find one dedicated person to work for either just their family or a couple of families,” said Lynn Perkins, UrbanSitter’s chief executive. The app has seen an uptick in families banding together to hire dedicated sitters amid safety concerns at larger facilities.

Others, like Kathleen Vobril, have turned to family for help. After spending the first few weeks of the pandemic juggling work and watching two kids, Vobril, the director of digital marketing for parts manufacturer Blount International, and her attorney husband asked her parents to move in with them. “Our situation was impossible,” she said. “We had to figure something out.” Even as things start to open up in Portland, Oregon, where the couple lives, Vobril isn’t sure she’d send their kids back to day care any time soon.

These realities mean that, like many businesses, child care providers face the prospect of fewer customers, which may not be sustainable. Already a low margin business, many centers won’t be able to operate at half-capacity, potentially resulting in even more closures and even fewer options for working parents.

Great Bear Childcare in Phoenix, New York, stayed open for essential workers’ kids, but is still down to less than half its usual capacity. Amy Boyzuck, the owner and director, managed to keep afloat and 4 of her 6 full-time employees on payroll with the help of a Payroll Protection Program loan. “If we hadn’t stayed open I don’t think we’d be able to reopen,” she said.

On Monday, Great Bear began readmitting some of its former students. Boyzuck is hopeful for a return to normal capacity by mid-June or early July, but she’s aware that may not last very long.

“Coronavirus isn’t gone, and it isn’t going to be gone for a while,” she said. “For now we’re just playing it by ear.”

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