Down to Business: Capital Region child care lacking post-COVID

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The coronavirus pandemic cost the Capital Region’s four core counties about a fifth of their existing child care operations, according to numbers from Brightside Up, the area’s child care resource and referral agency.

The sector, already serving just a fraction of local need pre-pandemic, took a hit between early 2020 and year-end 2021 as COVID-19 upended businesses and schools, creating a cascading effect on licensed child care programs offered in centers, homes and after-school locales.

In 2022 there was “a bit” of stabilization, says Abbe Kovacik, executive director of Brightside, a Menands-based group that helps parents seeking care and provides advice and training to child care operators.

Kovacik credited state efforts in part for that, as New York targeted $100 million in federal grant money toward new and existing child care programs in areas identified as “deserts.”

In two rounds of funding last year, $70 million was awarded in July to 344 new operations, and $30 million went in October to expand 418 existing programs. In the Capital Region, several dozen providers benefitted. 

The money focused on census tracts identified as “deserts” — having three or more children under the age of 5 for each available child care slot, or having no care available at all. More than 60% of the state meets the desert criteria, according to the governor’s office.

Many programs that hung on during the pandemic still aren’t operating to capacity, Kovacik said this week, with some limiting enrollment over ongoing health concerns and others not secure enough yet in staffing.

“It was always a difficult field,” she said of child care, with pay and benefits low and regulation high.

The not-so-humorous running joke is that workers can earn more per hour at some fast-food restaurants than at a child care center. Meanwhile, required child-to-teacher ratios can limit available slots when staffing shortages occur.

In the eight-county local region designated by the state for economic development purposes, licensed capacity exists for close to 30,000 children — or only 17% of the population of kids under the age of 14, according to Brightside data. Little to no care is found in some rural communities, but it’s lacking, too, in Cohoes, Menands and neighborhoods in Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

What’s more, few programs offer nontraditional care, such as on weekends, in the evening or overnight, even though major employers like manufacturers and hospitals run 24/7 locally.

On par with the other core counties, Kovacik reported that Schenectady County lost six child care centers, 12 family child care homes, two group family child care homes and eight school-age programs between January 2020 and December 2021. (Programs fall into these classifications based on where they operate and how many children they serve.)

Providers in the City of Schenectady, though, got a helping hand from The Schenectady Foundation, meaning none had to close, Kovacik said.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

Categories: Business, Opinion

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