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Washington’s child care crisis poised to get even bleaker post-pandemic

Teacher Joshua Gielgens reads to Arlo Morgenroth, right, and other children at the Wallingford Child Care Center in Seattle. (AP File Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Washington had already been in a child care crisis for years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, with too-few providers for children in need — but now, that problem looks like it is about to get even worse.

At the time the COVID-19 pandemic started, many child care providers had long since been barely able to stay in business due to rising costs. Now, after more than a year of capacity limits and families choosing to forego child care, it has only gotten harder for them to hang on.

“Going into the pandemic, we knew that many child care programs were barely able to operate with a cushion,” said Deeann Puffert, CEO of nonprofit Child Care Aware of Washington, which advocates for the needs of child care providers and parents alike. “What we’re seeing now are businesses that are in a perilous place around their ability to remain open.”

Puffert said they had expected to see families stay away from day care before widespread vaccination, but what they did not count on was trepidation all the way until herd immunity is reached.

Washington day care expert says we’re headed for an even bigger void in care

“Families, of course, are waiting until the vaccine in order to feel comfortable and confident to send children back … there’s still this sort of ‘wait and see,'” Puffert said. “I think everybody is just holding their breath still, and going, ‘Okay, is it safe or is it not?'”

Then there are the families who have adjusted to the pandemic with resourcefulness and have realized they can forego the expense of child care. Many workplaces have gotten more flexible with allowing people to work from home some or even all of the time — and these changes may remain after the pandemic. Some parents have also formed day care groups with relatives, friends, and neighbors.

However, Puffert worries that these may not be long-term solutions.

“They’ll choose not to go back to care, they’ll try to make this solution continue because it’s low-cost and it was working so well — and then the wheels will start to come off, and they’ll try to go back to the licensed child care provider, and [the provider] may not be there because they couldn’t persist for long enough,” she said.

In her experience, Puffert has not seen many day care providers raising rates, because they don’t want to drive remaining customers away. That means they’re having to eat the loss in revenue — along with higher costs from buying PPE.

For many small child care businesses, this has gotten too hard to afford. Since the pandemic started, 9% of Washington’s child care facilities have closed.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of providers saying, ‘How much longer can I stay open?'” Puffert said.

The worry is that when things start to get back to normal and families do want to go back to child care, there will be even more of a void in care providers as before.

“The hard truth is that there may be nowhere for them to go … And I worry that there will be even more child care deserts than what there were beforehand, where families just have no choice and they need care, too,” Puffert said.

Puffert explained that most of Washington is considered a child care desert, where there is not enough child care for all kids in need.

The light at the end of the tunnel for Puffert and the care providers she works with is the Fair Start for Kids Act, recently passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Inslee. Not only will the bill help close the gaps for providers with increased subsidies, but it will also help more families afford day care — an expense that can easily amount to one parent’s entire income.

The bill caps copays for the lowest-income families, and allows more middle-class families to qualify for subsidies by using Washington’s median family income, instead of the federal poverty line, as a measurement.

“In a state like Washington, where we have a relatively high cost of living and relatively high wages, the federal poverty level doesn’t work very well, so they shifted it to the state median income,” Puffert said. “Because of that, that means more families will be eligible.”

To see if you qualify for subsidies, or just to discuss your day care options, call Child Care Aware of Washington’s hotline.

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