When the pandemic took hold of Virginia in March 2020, shutting down businesses and large child care centers, the in-home day care that Jermeisha Justiniano runs in Chesterfield County stayed open.
Like the owners of many family home day cares across Richmond, she decided to risk her health in the midst of a pandemic to serve her families who had young children and needed to work.
“It was a difficult time,” she said. She struggled to purchase food for the 12 children in her care, ages 1 and up, like gallons of milk or fresh beef and chicken, which were being rationed at stores. Then, she couldn’t find basic supplies that were in short supply, like toilet paper, soap and bleach.
When her parents were shopping and saw an extra pack of toilet paper or some disinfectant, they’d grab it and drop it off. But then some parents started losing their jobs and their children dropped out of care.
“That affects you as a provider, with less money coming in,” she said.
A few months into the pandemic, she had to lay off her longtime assistant. She limped along during the summer, but when Chesterfield schools announced they would be virtual in the fall, Justiniano knew she was in trouble. She had three kids of her own in kindergarten, third and fifth grade, and she didn’t know how she would help them and take care of the kids in her care at the same time.
After 10 years of running a successful family day care, she made the painful decision to close her business.
“There was no way to keep it going,” she said.
Justiniano is just one example of the many child care providers and parents who have been struggling throughout the pandemic. Child care has been in crisis in Virginia and across the state for years, but the pandemic has pushed it to the breaking point.
It’s a complex issue, but there are two long-running problems with child care in the United States: the high cost to parents and the low wages paid to staff.
In Virginia, the average annual cost to have a baby in day care is more than $14,500, according to Child Care Aware of America. For older children up to age 4, the cost is around $11,500, accounting for up to 47% of a typical single parent’s income.
“This is not a ‘poor people’s problem,’ but a problem for the three-quarters of Americans who make less than $100,000 per year,” said Rich Schultz, president of Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond, a group that provides information and data on early childhood demographics.
Meanwhile, early childhood educators and day care staff members are severely underpaid, earning minimum wage or just above it. As of 2019, child care workers received an average annual salary in Virginia of $22,797, well below the federal poverty line, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
Due to chronic low wages, child care centers and day home services are having major problems with staffing and retention.
“The number one issue [facing child care providers] is workforce recruitment,” said Kim Hulcher, executive director of the Virginia Child Care Association. “We’re having a challenging time filling positions as parents go back to work.”
Hulcher and others in the child care industry said that child care educators, many who are making about $11 an hour, are leaving the workforce to take jobs at Target or Amazon, which pay $15 an hour.
As of last month, roughly 90% of child care centers in Virginia had reopened. But many are having trouble staffing their centers due to low wages.
“Child care is a broken system in a failed market. Fundamentally, the business model of child care in America doesn’t work,” said Elliot Haspel, who works in education policy and research at the Robins Foundation. He is also the author of the book “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”
“It’s a system that doesn’t work for anyone: not for parents, not for providers, not for children or for the economy. The lack of child care is a drag on the business sector as well,” Haspel said.
The pandemic has revealed many problems in the child care industry.
But there is a silver lining.
“Child care is finally being seen as a critical industry,” Schultz said. “Employers are seeing it because it’s affecting the workforce. If you can’t get child care, you can’t go to work.”
Over the past year, 2.3 million women have left the workforce due to child care needs during the pandemic, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“People don’t realize that access to quality early childhood care is workforce development. Those two things go hand in hand,” said Lisa Thompson, program director with ChildSavers, a local nonprofit that provides child care resources.
“Parents need a place where they can bring their children and go to work and feel secure in the decisions they’ve made with their most precious beings,” she added.
But at the start of the pandemic, many child care centers closed their doors and didn’t reopen for months, leaving parents in the lurch.
Others reopened, but enrollment was down because some parents didn’t feel safe taking their children to child care. Class sizes shrank because of social distancing requirements but increased the need for staff.
Costs — for everything from food to personal protective equipment — increased while revenues decreased.
Many child care providers, like Justiniano, felt they were on the brink of collapse.
In March 2020, the federal government passed the CARES Act, providing $3.5 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $750 million to Head Start programs. States were allowed to leverage those funds flexibly for child care purposes and were able to send direct grants to child care providers, as well as provide personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies.
But for many, it wasn’t enough. In July, nearly 40% of Virginia’s child care centers remained closed.
A survey from ChildSavers and Smart Beginnings that month revealed that 48% of provider respondents out of 600 surveyed reported that they would not be able to survive without financial assistance.
In October, Gov. Ralph Northam approved more than $65 million in extra funding from the CARES Act to help child care providers.
But because the grants and funding were based on enrollment sizes, in-home providers didn’t receive nearly as much assistance as larger centers.
Cheryl Morman runs Blessings From Above, an in-home family day care in Chesterfield. Her day care stayed open during the pandemic and never closed, serving 12 children, which is the state limit for family day home providers.
“We received $600 per month, whereas a center-based provider received up to $11,000. It was based on your licensed capacity,” she said.
She said that her costs during the pandemic rose at least 25%, but she didn’t increase her prices.
“With the additional expenses, we’re already operating in a deficit because we received so much less,” Morman said. She has been running her day care for 20 years and is also the president of the state association for family day home providers.
“We provide the same high-quality care for children. We attend the same training as larger centers and adhere to the same guidelines. We should receive the same benefits.”
Out of approximately 6,000 child care providers in Virginia, 2,000 of those are family day home providers, which are often run by women and women of color.
But for some family day home providers, the system just didn’t work. After closing her family day home care business, Justiniano shifted careers and became a loan-signing agent. Now she works from home as an independent contractor.
“I love it,” she said. “It gives you so much freedom.”
The pandemic has brought to light an important shift that has been happening in child care in recent years.
The YMCA of Emporia offers full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as before-and-after care for kindergarten through fourth grade and a program for fifth through seventh grade.
But once the pandemic started and schools went virtual, day cares and after care programs turned into virtual learning centers.
“We had to take our program and make it all day from 6:45 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” said Kristin Vaughan, executive director of the YMCA of Emporia.
Different ages couldn’t be in the same room because they were learning different materials. Guidelines on class sizes were constantly changing. Then the public schools went back in-person this March, but on a hybrid model. One group of kids went to school Monday and Tuesday according to their last name and the rest went on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday was all virtual.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Vaughan said. “We’ve done the best we can. We’ve made it work. But I don’t think anybody fully grasps how hard it is to work out the logistics.”
And it changed the nature of their work.
“Before the pandemic, people just thought of us as watching our children. Now we’re educators. We’re teaching our children. Finding that skill level and managing all the logistical pieces of it is a challenge,” Vaughan said.
Paying her staff as educators is a challenge, which results in low retention. “We’ve had to turn away lots of children because we didn’t have enough staff,” she said.
The Friends Association for Children operates two child care centers in Church Hill and Jackson Ward that stayed open during the pandemic. The Friends Association also saw itself changing its model from a child care and before-and-after care center to a virtual learning center for its older school-age children.
Before the pandemic, the YWCA’s Sprout School in Richmond served children ages 2 months to 5 years but found it had to shift its model during the pandemic and turn into a virtual education center for its graduates and children of essential workers.
“The pandemic has helped elevate the conversation about why early childhood education is so important to the economic fabric of the community,” said Linda Tissiere of the YWCA’s Sprout School. “It truly is early childhood education. And early childhood education became a priority because people needed to go back to work and they couldn’t do it without a safe and affordable place for their children to be during the day.”
A shift has been happening in the child care industry in Virginia and across the nation for quite some time, moving from child care to early childhood education.
In 2018, Northam hired Jenna Conway as chief school readiness officer to support the early childhood sector and to focus on how to help prepare young children for kindergarten.
“What this governor cares deeply about is making sure that every child in the commonwealth has the opportunity to come to school ready,” Conway said.
“Jenna is trying to change the mindset [of supporting] education from kindergarten through 12 to birth to 12th grade,” said Schultz of Smart Beginnings. “There is zero investment in early childhood education from birth on. Parents have to front all of it [economically].”
“Right now, 45% of the children entering kindergarten in Virginia don’t have the opportunity to be prepared” in math, literacy, social skills and self-regulation like the ability to manage emotions, Conway said. “When you work backwards, you see that’s a result of not all kids and families having access to quality early childhood experiences that put them on a track for success.”
Virginia saw an 18% drop in enrollment for preschool in the fall, as well as a historically low participation in the child care subsidy program and in the Head Start programs, which affects many Black and Latino families and lower-income families.
Starting July 1, the state Department of Education will take over early childhood education and child care in Virginia from the Department of Social Services, a step that many believe will streamline access to early childhood education.
The state is currently issuing $200 million from the fourth phase of the CARES Act, including up to $85 million to provide direct assistance to providers that can be used to offset expenses or however they see fit, Conway said.
President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan is also set to infuse the child care industry with money to stay afloat. The plan includes $306 million for Virginia child care and development block grants and $490 million for Virginia child care stabilization grants.
The plan also includes an increase in the child tax credit to a total of $3,600 per child under the age of 6 and $3,000 per child ages 6 to 17. The previous tax credit per child was $2,000. That money will start being paid monthly starting July 15.
The state also started an early educator incentive program in 2019, offering $1,500 incentives to select early educators. The key finding was that the recognition grant led to a large drop in turnover, from 30% of teachers leaving child care sites to 15%.
That grant has increased to $2,000 this year due to COVID-19.
The Virginia Promise Partnership is a new a coalition that has set the goal of ensuring all Virginia families have access to affordable quality child care by 2030. The partnership seeks to achieve that goal by pushing for long-term policies and resources.
“It’s a broken system,” Schultz said, adding that it’s been that way for a long time.
“It’s scrappy and we have amazing people in this line of work who are making it happen, but they deserve better,” Schultz said. “I hope from this [crisis], more sustainable solutions will emerge.”