I don’t remember much about preschool, beyond that it was good. My parents took my sisters and I to Educare, a private non-profit preschool in Arcata. My favorite teacher was lively and caring, had vibrant hair and lots of patience. We gathered each day in a circle on the rug, criss-cross applesauce knee-to-knee, and afterward, during snack time, all the kids sat together at a long table as if we were sharing a great feast. At graduation, I marched across a tiny wooden bridge and received a thornless rose and scrolled certificate, my little Educare diploma.
In 2004, the year I went to Educare, Humboldt had 277 child care centers — both in-home daycare businesses and larger public and private centers — in operation. Just prior to the pandemic, Humboldt’s total child care establishments had dropped to 215. By October 2021, the county had 175 child care centers open and operating, Kerry Venegas, executive director at Changing Tides Family Services, told the Outpost.
Like most industries, child care was immediately and significantly impacted by the pandemic. Support systems jumped into action right away. Changing Tides Family Services, which provides income-eligible families with child care vouchers, distributed personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and diapers to child care facilities, and delivered food directly to families. First Five Humboldt partnered with Arcata Play Center to bring activity kits, outdoor walking groups and weekly park playdates to families, and worked with the Humboldt Area Foundation to distribute stipends to child care centers that stayed open. A council and task force were assembled to talk about solutions, and their efforts are ongoing.
Even so, 20 months in, as many sectors chug along to a normal-enough tune, child care is stuck in a weird zone, unable to bounce back the way so many other industries have. Darius Kalvaitis, early childhood education chair at College of the Redwoods, described child care as an overlooked safety net that’s beginning to fail.
Problems have been brewing in the child care industry for years in Humboldt, but also statewide and nationally. Child care workers aren’t paid well — about eight to ten dollars an hour, when you factor in overhead costs, Venegas said — and so the industry sees high rates of burnout and turnover. Nevertheless, the money families shell out of their pockets for child care is significant — even when eligible for a state-subsidized voucher — often leaving one parent in dual-income families working just to afford child care.
Of course, COVID intensified existing problems in child care and drew up some new ones – like how on earth to honor masking, sanitation and distancing recommendations while working with infants and toddlers. With those challenges and more, COVID forced many of Humboldt’s child care centers to close, and some have yet to reopen.
At child care’s lowest pandemic low, only 120 centers were open. Over the months, 55 have opened back up, but many are still operating at limited capacity, meaning the number of slots open today are drastically reduced compared to pre-COVID times.
Private in-home child care businesses each account for five to 14 kids — depending on permitting — and larger child care centers, public or private, can take 30 to sometimes 80 kids. Those are the types of child care businesses included in the statistics above, but child care also includes after-school programs, which often are often located on school sites, and classic old-time nannying, which doesn’t require any credentialing.
The still-closed centers make for a significant difference considering how many kids that represents, especially when child care was hard to find in Humboldt County to begin with, Venegas said. About two to four percent of Humboldt’s pre-pandemic child care centers are gone for good.
“When you multiply that out, that’s a big chunk, because every one of those providers is between five kids — and that means at least five families they serve — to upwards of 20, 30 kids. So it takes a big chunk out of available child care.”
My beloved Educare is one of the casualties. When COVID arrived, Educare was renting space from another child care center, where the two shared a building, outdoor play area and children’s bathroom. In need of more space due to COVID, the other facility stopped renting to Educare.
“We shut down. At the time, we thought that that would be temporary,” said Ranae Liles, former Educare director. “We were faced with moving, and in the middle of a pandemic, that wasn’t that feasible.” Several potential rental spaces popped up but none were appropriate for licenseable child care. Liles, who felt bad about accepting even a partial salary, resigned as director after several months but stayed on as a board member to continue searching for a new site.
Deep in the pandemic weeds, the board never found a viable option, so it recently voted to dissolve the nonprofit and say goodbye to Educare permanently, not long after its 40-year anniversary. Prior to the pandemic, Educare had a license capacity of 48 and had a daily attendance of 20 to 28 kids.
There are a lot of reasons child care centers had to close. Many can’t staff their programs. Some in-home daycare programs located in rental properties are at risk of losing their business when a landlord wants to sell. Others never felt safe returning to child care, or chose to retire early.
A fair few child care businesses are gone for good. On top of those losses, the centers that did stay open during the pandemic had to decrease their enrollment, or ratios, for safety purposes, and many have held on to those decreased numbers.
“In child care, you have what’s called ratios — how many kids per square feet, how many adults with how many kids — those ratios got shredded. So now the people running the programs can take less kids, but they still have to pay their staff the same amount — they still got to pay their bills, and there’s probably additional costs related to safety, cleaning, maintenance,” said Darius Kalvaitis, early childhood education department chair at College of the Redwoods. “So that was a big problem.”
Little Learners Center, one of Humboldt’s largest private child care businesses, kept only one of their four sites open — for the children of healthcare workers — at the beginning of the pandemic. Today, all four sites are open, but the organization is serving just 130 families compared to 300 children pre-pandemic, said Shannon Hall, founder and director of Little Learners.
“We are still only running at a 60 percent capacity and I don’t plan to return to full classrooms, for many reasons, COVID safety first. Less children means less exposure,” Hall said. “We have a long waitlist but we are enjoying having smaller classroom sizes for more one on one with the children and I can’t keep up with the workload of adding more families with the extra workload COVID has brought.”
Little Learners increased their rates and staff wages because of COVID, and today have 35 staff as opposed to 45 pre-pandemic, when the business had a higher teacher-child ratio.
“Financially, it has been like rebuilding a business.” At the beginning of the pandemic, online curriculum helped keep Little Learners afloat, as well as the support of local partners, Hall said, adding that inflation has been an additional challenge recently.
Positive cases and classroom shutdowns have been a challenge too, but after nearly two years, Little Learners has a good contact tracing and testing system in place, Hall said, with help from Humboldt Open Door Clinic. “It has been hard to shut down when a case happens because we know the extra stress it puts on families, but most of our families are very understanding.”
Complications like whether and how to mask and distance infants, toddlers and young children — who are now the only segment of the population that isn’t vaccine-eligible — and how to protect child care workers from infection continue to hinder child care centers.
“There is no way to care for a child without being in close contact with them at some point, and the families and whoever their families are in contact with, too. So I think child care providers, right on the frontlines, are stepping up all the time to do the job,” Venegas said.
“It’s kind of like a mixing place for germs to begin with. Teachers have always had that problem. I used to get sick a lot when I was a classroom teacher, I mean, all the time,” Kalvaitis said. “There’s no distancing. There’s no masking, because a lot of these are infants, they can’t do it, the kids can’t wear their masks anyway. And so there are safety concerns for sure.”
Anxieties eased with adult vaccination, but because that protection is still not available to kids younger than 5, masking, distancing and observing safety protocols to the greatest extent possible continues to be extremely important, Venegas said. “And that’s a lot. It’s a burden. I also think there’s a realistic part of it — it’s more about the spacing and the sanitizing,” Venegas said, noting that masking a toddler is a really big challenge, though kids are adaptable.
“Going through masks and keeping things sanitized is just a double burden — it’s a very important one — and child care providers themselves want to be safe, and they want to keep the families that they care for safe, and the parents really appreciate that.”
Far fewer children have access to child care today than before March 2020. What’s happening to all the other little ones? “[Parents] can’t find care,” Venegas said. “There just aren’t enough open spaces with providers.”
“For a lot of parents, what we’re hearing is that — especially parents who maybe had a multi-generational family unit in the same home or next door to each other — were opting out of working, because they couldn’t find care,” Venegas said, adding that in some cases, even when parents could find care, it wasn’t always reliable because of exposure-related closures.
“So there are a lot of sacrifices that parents had to make, and one of them is if they could, [parents] made a choice about one of them not going back to work,” Venegas said, adding that even when parents could work remotely, many struggled to give both their kids and job adequate attention.
And some parents stopped working because service industry jobs don’t offer enough sick leave.
“You usually don’t have a lot of pay built up, so you can’t afford to have an unstable child care situation,” Venegas said, “because if you can’t show up to work, you won’t keep your job for very long.”
There may be a lack of overall community awareness when it comes to child care and the trickle-down impacts it has, but there is no shortage of people interested in making it right.
A group of folks involved with local child care systems (including actual child care centers, Changing Tides Family Services, Northcoast Children’s Services, the Humboldt County Office of Education and others) gather twice monthly on Zoom for a Humboldt Emergency Child Care Task Force meeting. The group focuses specifically on looking at ways to aid and protect child care workers; this week, they finalized a survey for local child care providers that will identify what pandemic-related challenges are persisting the most and why. The results will shape recommendations for American Rescue Plan Act funding, which the task force will forward to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors (which has expressed support for struggling local child care systems).
The task force is one of a few Humboldt groups working to develop solutions (perhaps “adaptations” is more accurate) for the very, very strained local child care scene. They’ll keep meeting indefinitely, as long as the problems keep up.
Kalvaitis is a member of Humboldt’s local Child Care Planning Council.
“The solutions are few and hard between,” Kalvaitis said. “There’s a couple of reasons that they’re hard solutions.”
Like the very small workforce: For one, there are few incentives for still-shuttered child care centers to reopen and increase capacity, and on top of that, the local pool of interested and qualified child care workers is small. Kalvaitis is working to address that from his position at College of the Redwoods by keeping the child care teacher pipeline alive and well. At CR, folks can earn a certificate of achievement for early childhood education in one semester, which is all it takes to qualify for child care work and even start a child care business.
“What’s the solution? I think all of us know what the solution is on the local Child Care Planning Council. We need to put more resources here,” Kalvaitis said. “If we just increase the wages and salaries of these workers, that would make it more attractive, more people would want to do it. They’d do it better, they’d do it longer, they wouldn’t quit.”
Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman (who calls child care her favorite topic) serves on the Humboldt Emergency Child Care Task Force and has been dedicated to improving conditions for local children and families since before the pandemic. She launched the Eureka Children and Family Initiative in 2019, with a goal to assess and address child care roadblocks. A central factor of the initiative is local economic health, which Seaman asserts is fundamentally linked to child care access and quality.
Seaman told the Outpost she’s optimistic.
“The state and feds are talking about childcare as a critical piece of our workforce infrastructure and they’re finally trying provide resources to support that. It’s a very tough time right now to be a provider or to need a provider, but at least this is finally being talked about so we can begin to address it and realize childcare is not just a parent problem,” Seaman said.
“The crisis has been here for a while. It definitely got exacerbated through COVID,” Kalvaitis said. “Here’s an opportunity for the community to recognize that and recognize the ultimate economic and social importance of good care for young children.”
Those who are willing and able to work in child care right now are spread thin and stressed out.
“If I could emphasize one thing it would be that it takes a lot of courage and a lot of dedication and a lot of compassion to take the kinds of risks that child care providers have taken the entire pandemic,” Venegas said.
Even so — by no fault of anyone — some are worried about the quality and endurance of COVID-era child care.
“All the little children now that are in this child care loop, they’ve seen nothing but the pandemic, they’ve grown up in the pandemic, with this kind of crisis around them. So that’s all they know,” Kalvaitis said.
who has worked in child care for more than 30 years, said the problem
is new and significant.
A whole batch of preschool kids who have never had a typical preschool experience are now entering programs that are struggling to remain developmentally appropriate, Liles said.
“It is almost as if the programs were child-centered before, but now they’re COVID-centered, and the child comes second.”
All the things anyone older than 5 might remember about preschool still exist, but they’re different. During meal times, rather than sitting together and sharing food family-style, kids are sitting apart and are served by adults. During circle time, teachers are struggling to keep kids far apart from one another.
“I think a lot of families bring children into group care because they want them to play with their peers, they want them to establish those relationships. And I’m not saying that isn’t happening, but it’s a little bit more challenging for our young kids,” Liles said.
Kalvaitis anticipates there will be long-term impacts.
“It’s alarming for young children because they’ll have a different developmental trajectory,” he said. The concentration of strictly online child care programs has certainly decreased, and many young kids are back with — or at least near — their peers. But some kids aren’t spending their days with other kids, be it because there are no slots for them or because their parents have chosen to keep them safely at home.
“Young children, they’re supposed to be socializing with people. That’s how they learn, that’s how their brains develop. That’s been reduced. They’re not hanging out with their grandparents like they maybe want to, they’re not hanging out with their cousins like they want to, all the playgroups that there were, were canceled,” Kalvaitis said.
“I don’t think it’s going to have positive outcomes. The data is going to be forthcoming many years from now, but there’s going to be a little blip in the data that shows that something weird happened here.”
CORRECTION: Educare is not Humboldt’s only privately operated non-profit preschool, as originally stated in this article. Mad River Montessori in Arcata has run a private nonprofit preschool for more than 40 years. In fact, Mad River Montessori preschool has actually increased capacity to serve more families during the pandemic. The Outpost regrets the error.