Foss: Child care programs need help

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Categories: Opinion, Sara Foss

When YWCA Northeastern New York shut down its child care program in response to COVID-19, the organization was serving 100 children between six months and five years.

After a lengthy hiatus that ended in July, the children returned to the program.

But not all of them.

As of now, just 30 kids are enrolled in the YWCA’s child care program, a steep drop from pre-pandemic times.

“We need to bring in new children,” YWCA chief executive director Kim Siciliano told me. “People are very hesitant.”

Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a demand for child care, as parents scrambled to cobble together care for children who were once in school or daycare. That demand increased as parents returned to work, but with many still under or unemployed, it’s nowhere near what it once was.

That’s put child care programs, many of which have reopened, in a difficult spot.

Programs that were operating at full capacity five months ago are now under-enrolled, and suffering crippling financial losses that could threaten their very existence. This is a potentially big problem — one that risks dragging down the entire economy.

For many adults, daycare is what enables them to work.

If large numbers of child care programs close permanently, parents will find it much harder to hold down full-time jobs. I don’t really know what I would do if I couldn’t send my son to daycare. You can’t work when a two-year-old is pestering you to read, color and play games all day long.

In one survey, released in July by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 40 percent of child care centers said they will be forced to shut down if they don’t receive additional public assistance.

That’s alarming — and it’s why I was excited to hear about a new initiative, spearheaded by The Schenectady Foundation, that will provide child care programs with small grants to help them reopen, make up lost income and purchase needed supplies, such as personal protective gear.

Announced last week, the program, which is open to child care providers in Schenectady County, has already received applications from over two dozen child care programs.

Most providers are requesting money to help cover financial losses sustained during the pandemic, Abbe Kovacik, the executive director of Brightside Up, Inc., a Menands-based child-care resource center, told me.

“It’s been thousands and thousands of dollars of losses for child care centers,” Kovacik said. “They’re worried about their mortgages, they’re worried about rent, they’re worried about paying their staff. Some smaller centers will probably never recover.”

Even in the best of times, child care centers operate on thin margins.

And while many programs are currently under-enrolled, there’s typically a shortage of quality, affordable daycare slots that often leaves parents scrambling to find a place to send their child to go so they can return to work.

“This is a fragile system that’s now a really vulnerable system,” Kovacik said.

The Schenectady Foundation provided Brightside Up with $50,000 in grant money to disburse to local child care organizers.

The response from providers suggests that “we clearly hit on something,” Robert Carreau, the Foundation’s executive director, said. “We put this out as a trial program. We’ll see where it goes, and if we need to do more, we’ll consider it.”

Daycares in New York weren’t forced to shut down during the pandemic, and while many stayed open, a significant number closed.

As of July, 25 of Schenectady County’s 127 child care programs remained closed. Just 18 of the county’s 38 child care centers — which are larger than home-based programs, and serve more children — had reopened.

The YWCA applied to the Schenectady Foundation for assistance earlier this year, and received a $6,000 maintenance award, $30,000 to offset lost income and $13,000 for new supplies such as portable handwashing stations, masks for children and protective gear for staff such as scrubs and masks.

“We would not have been able to weather this storm without The Schenectady Foundation,” Siciliano said.

The YWCA has two early learning centers. One is located at the organization’s headquarters on Washington Avenue, and has already reopened.

The other, at SUNY Schenectady, will reopen in early September.

The ongoing uncertainty over school and work, combined with the general fear and anxiety many parents have over sending children into a group setting, has been “a nightmare for providers,” Siciliano said.

“What does school look like and what does childcare look like?” she said. “And are the parents going back to work?”

I will admit to some anxiety over sending my son back to daycare, but after months of patchwork child-care solutions, the reopening of his facility came as a huge relief.

He’s happy, and so am I.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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