Childcare spots around the Capital Region have gradually started to return as providers reopen classes and families seek care, but dwindling federal aid and a complicated childcare landscape could put those small gains at risk.
The number of childcare seats in the region has rebounded to about half of the number available prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Abbe Kovacik, executive director of Brightside Up, which coordinates childcare services around the region.
After the number of childcare spots fell to about one-third of their pre-pandemic level in the depths of the spring, seats have gradually returned as providers struggled to stay open. But some providers closed down all together and existing childcare providers – which range from small operations run out of a provider’s home to larger centers based at school or other sites – are having to seek out new locations and operate under limited capacity and increased costs.
“Everyday we are reopening more seats,” Kovacik said Tuesday. “They are absolutely expanding.”
The growth in childcare services is complicated by myriad new regulations and health protocols, overlapping schedules for students returning to classrooms and federal relief aid set to dry up by the end of the year.
Business leaders also point to affordable childcare options as critical to economic recovery. A poll of 600 businesses statewide released Tuesday found that nearly 60 percent of respondents agree that a lack of access to affordable and quality childcare negatively affects their business; the numbers were higher in New York City and among minority-owned businesses.
The poll results – released by Raising New York, a statewide coalition advocating for youth in the state – also showed that 45 percent of respondents reported problems with employee absenteeism or calling off a shift due to problems with childcare. Just over a quarter of respondents said they were concerned about problems meeting childcare needs as the state reopens the economy. Three-quarters of respondents said they think investments in access to childcare would have a positive impact on their business.
During a virtual press conference Tuesday, business leaders and childcare advocates said the pandemic has exacerbated the childcare issues that existed before schools and businesses closed and governments imposed strict new health and safety rules.
“Productivity, the ability to hire and retain are all negatively impacted because of the high cost and lack of accessibility of quality infant and toddler care,” said Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State.
The advocates called on the federal government to boost relief funding targeted at childcare programs. Briccetti said that 92 percent of respondents in the survey agreed more public funds should be invested in childcare programs.
“This is a very serious problem and business leaders are fairly united in believing we need leadership at federal, state and local levels to help us navigate this,” she said.
Dede Hill, policy director at the Albany-based Schuyler Center, said the pandemic and economic fallout will continue make it hard for families to afford childcare and that limited school schedules add even more to those difficulties.
“This has meant that for parents exactly at the time their budgets are tighter than ever, they are actually facing additional childcare challenges and costs,” she said.
She also pointed to the enormous strain the pandemic has placed on childcare providers, noting that many providers are on the verge of closing and are regularly working 16-hour days as they expand cleaning efforts and try to keep up with ever-changing requirements. Additional costs include cleaning supplies and the space and staff needed to comply with new distancing requirements. Some providers are also working to oversee online learning for some school-age children whose parents require childcare during school hours.
“Our childcare providers are operating with half the funds and three times as many regulations right now,” Hill said.
Earlier federal stimulus gave the state funding to bolster the operating costs of childcare providers, enabling providers to purchase cleaning and personal protective supplies and hire new staff or lease new space, and fund childcare scholarships for essential workers unable to stay home. State officials last week announced the third – and final – round of grants available through that initial federal aid. Kovacik said those dollars would likely dry up by the end of the year.
Proposals on the table in Washington include funds to bolster childcare providers and families, but bipartisan negotiations have been stalled for weeks.
“We started behind the eight ball with not enough childcare [before the pandemic],” Kovacik said. “And now we can lose childcare that we did have.”
More from The Daily Gazette: