Watching the children

Sullivan County faces a childcare crisis

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/17/21

SULLIVAN COUNTY — The local real estate agent had a client with a job offer here. That person ended up backing out, because childcare was so scarce.

“Several of my staff are in …

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Watching the children

Sullivan County faces a childcare crisis

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY — The local real estate agent had a client with a job offer here. That person ended up backing out, because childcare was so scarce.

“Several of my staff are in moms’ groups on social media,” Donna Willi, executive director of the Sullivan County Child Care Council, wrote in an email. “There are hundreds of comments, citing no child care, for summer and beyond.”

Before the pandemic, there were over 8,000 kids aged nine and under in the county, and just over a 1,000 state-registered or certified child care places. That includes in-school care.

During the pandemic, several places, plus the schools, closed. Not all have reopened.  

As parents go back to work, who will watch the kids?

Not working

“Childcare wasn’t working before the pandemic,” Willi said. And this loss has an effect on the county’s workforce and economy.

Census data shows that the county had 4,260 kids under five, and 4,183 between ages five and nine. Before the pandemic, Willi said, “Sullivan County was experiencing huge economic growth as a result of the opening of Resorts World, the Kartrite, [wellness resort] YO1 and many other entities and collateral employment growth.”

But even then county residents struggled to find childcare, specifically for babies and toddlers, she said.  

The pandemic made it all worse.

What happened?

Willi offers examples. One provider retired. Another just wanted to get out of the business. Some may have struggled financially when the families had to pull the kids out, a knock-on effect from furloughing.

And  “a lot of people are doing the family-juggling thing,” Willi said, balancing the needs of everyone plus their own. “People have just navigated their way around what’s been handed to them.”

There were some solutions out there. Healthy Kids, which runs childcare programs across the state, operated remote learning centers for essential workers during the pandemic, said marketing director Heather Lynn.

The point is that childcare is run by people who have also just been through a pandemic, who maybe lost loved ones, and who might be re-thinking what they want to do.

How important is childcare?

Childcare is soft infrastructure, and it underlies the ability of parents to work. “Childcare is a big deal,” Willi said.

It’s “[u]rgent, necessary, crucial… without childcare people cannot work. Even parents that are working from home need child care. Over and over employers are citing they cannot find workers, regardless of industry.”

Some say that lack of childcare is the reason.

The county’s community resources department, which includes workforce development, wouldn’t be surprised. A few months ago, commissioner Laura Quigley said that it was a major reason given for continued unemployment. “The majority that we talked to had children who were home” during the pandemic, she said then. “In this county, we had a shortage of childcare to begin with,” Quigley said at the time. “Getting that back is extremely difficult.”

Add the unpredictability of the modern workplace for many women—where they sometimes don’t know their schedules till the day before—and it complicates finding care.

But changes are in the works. “The federal government has taken childcare under its wing,” Willi said, “providing support for programs that are struggling to stay open.”

Programs face ongoing costs, like for PPE. “Those that remained open worked diligently to maintain safety protocols and offered care continuously,” Willi said. “There were several grants offered to childcare programs but many still were unable to recover/continue and have since closed.”

Another problem: sometimes families relied on other family members to provide care, but that may not be an option in the pandemic as seniors are more cautious about caring for children.

What’s the focus now?

The Child Care Council would like to see more childcare businesses open to balance out those that have closed, and accommodate new and longtime residents who need care. “If you’re struggling with childcare, maybe you should open your own program,” Willi said.

She logged nine years as a family daycare provider herself, and points out that you can better control your schedule and the hours are consistent.

The downside? “The wages for a child care worker are, unfortunately lower than a living wage with a high level of responsibility.”

But if you run your business as a business, then it can be profitable, she added. The average weekly cost of childcare in the county is $150; consider that multiplied by six children, which is roughly the number that home-based programs have. “ We and other child care advocates are always advocating for higher wages for child care workers.”

Healthy Kids is broadening its base, offering before- and after-school programs, summer camp and early learning programs in more locations, Lynn said. .  

SUNY Sullivan has also launched a program for its employees and students, working with Healthy Kids. “We are thrilled to open an early learning center on SUNY Sullivan’s campus,” said Lynn. They’re offering preschool programs during class hours.

The Child Care Council “supports the providers in their homes” as well as larger daycare programs, Willi said. “We remind them they’re running a small business.” That translates into explanations of regulations and insurance (for people who want to open a program) and basic business know-how, like writing a business plan and what accounting needs to be done. “We’re not for profit, supported by the state office of children and family services,” she said. And, maybe more important, “we’re human, we’re local” and they get how intimidating the business end of things can be.

Regulations are a fact of life and that’s how it should be; they’re there to prevent abuse or neglect. The Child Care Council, Willi said, helps and supports people to get the training they need and as they “navigate the regulatory requirements to open a program and remain in compliance.”  Lack of childcare, she said, “is a community problem and a political problem.”

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