Coronavirus could lead to better child care if Washington acts now

If we don't overhaul our day care system, it could cease to exist.

a little buddy on a swing

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing our country’s most broken systems, and child care is no exception. There aren’t enough day cares to meet demand, and the average annual day care tuition in our state is double a University of Washington student’s annual tuition. (Daniel Reinhardt/dpa/AP)

Our day care is still open.

At first, I felt relief. For us, taking care of our nearly 2-year-old son while working from home isn’t just exhausting — it’s impossible. But that feeling of relief didn’t last long.

Washington state, unlike our neighbors Oregon and California, has not ordered the closure of its child care programs. That means it’s been up to individual day care providers to figure out how to operate in the midst of a pandemic without going bankrupt. The result is a hodgepodge of solutions by providers both here and throughout the country. In a Facebook group I’m in, Seattle parents described day care policies that run the gamut, from “We’re closed but you have to still pay us,” to “We’re open, and even if you want to stay home you still have to pay us,” to “We’re offering reduced tuition,” to “You don’t need to pay tuition, please make donations if you can.”

In our case, it feels irresponsible to send our son to day care, given what we know about children being potential vectors for coronavirus. We pulled him out in mid-March, and our day care provider is asking families who aren’t attending to pay full tuition to hold their child’s spot. I’m frustrated, but not with my day care — this shouldn’t be about day cares versus parents. I’m frustrated because we haven’t built a child care system that can withstand this kind of crisis. Our political leadership should be using the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink how to finance a well-functioning system for all children, instead of leaving it up to parents and day cares to figure out a patchwork of stopgap solutions on their own.

“The reason why the public school system works relatively well is that they have a third-party payer called the taxpayer,” said Deeann Puffert, CEO of Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit advocacy organization. But in child care, there is no third-party payer, except for a subsidy system that is woefully inadequate and leaves many low-income families scrambling for affordable options.

Child care is expensive. Washington ranks ninth nationally for most expensive infant child care; the annual tuition for infant day care in our state — averaging about $24,000 — is about double a University of Washington student’s annual tuition (in-state tuition averages $11,465); and there aren’t enough day cares to meet demand.

That’s why some lawmakers have proposed more substantial systemwide fixes. Washington Sen. Patty Murray reintroduced the Child Care for Working Families Act last year, and former presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren proposed a universal child care plan.

Some states are opening up additional spending and resources for essential workers’ childcare. While that’s a crucial immediate need, it’s yet another stopgap solution. Instead, we should take note of Vermont’s promise to stabilize the sector: “Families will be expected to pay 50% of their original tuition costs in order to hold their spots when centers are finally able to reopen. If families unenroll and don’t pay, the state will cover the full tuition bill,” reports the VTDigger website.

If we don’t overhaul our child care system, it may simply cease to exist. About one-quarter of Washington’s licensed child care centers — serving about 62,000 children statewide — have closed because of the coronavirus, KUOW reports. And there’s a real question about whether they’ll be able to reopen. Additionally, day cares won’t only lose revenue from families withdrawing — they’ll likely need to adjust their student-to-teacher ratio, based on infection prevention guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that limit groups to a maximum of 10. The financial implications are stunning, said Puffert, who’s working on a modeling scenario that shows a “profound shortfall” for day cares.

If you’re a parent like me who is worried about whether high-quality, affordable child care options will exist in the near future, Puffert suggests doing two things.

First, write your political representatives at the city, state and federal level. Emphasize that parents splitting their days between working and parenting is not sustainable, that raising children is a 24/7 job. Most importantly, highlight that parents don’t just depend on child care to work; our economy depends on child care to function. As former Mayor Tim Burgess wrote in a recent op-ed in The Seattle Times, “About 30% of working parents in our state report they have quit a job or school because they couldn’t find or afford child care.” Push for broader, more comprehensive solutions that will last beyond this pandemic — not a short-term, short-sighted response to the crisis we’re in now.

Second, and I realize this is a tougher ask, depending on your situation, talk to your employer about the reality of being a working parent. “Businesses have had a relatively free ride around child care,” said Puffert, who said employer-provided child care subsidies can be a powerful retention tool. “Families need to say, ‘I’m working long hours for you and child care allows me to do that.’ ” Yes, it’s important for employers to be flexible about work during this time, but working parents will inevitably end up wondering why those flexible policies and extra support couldn’t have been in place all along. If you’re in a position to put more pressure on your employer to be part of the solution and advocate for better systems, do it. It will help your current and future colleagues, and help improve our society’s work culture.

When we kept our son home in mid-March, our decision sparked a chain of back-and-forth emails between us and our day care, and ultimately felt like a zero-sum game. We proposed to withdraw him, lose our spot (which took us nine months to get) and not pay the 45-day withdrawal fee (which would amount to roughly $3,400, a month and a half of tuition). We waited anxiously for our day care’s response, and nearly a month later they said we needed to pay April tuition; however, they wrote, families who withdrew after April 30 wouldn’t need to pay the withdrawal fee. Our heads spun as we did the math –– which amounted to paying for 45 days of unused service anyway — and as we tried to understand the rationale for implementing the policy a month and a half after the coronavirus hit. We told them we can’t afford to pay for services we did not use, and they said they’ll get back to us soon.

The pandemic is upending our entire lives, but it also presents an opportunity to rebuild a system that has been broken for too long. I hope our policymakers take seriously their responsibility to capitalize on this opportunity to keep day care businesses running, day care workers employed and working parents from approaching financial peril. It shouldn’t be on parents and day care providers to figure this out alone.

About the Authors & Contributors

Anika Anand

Anika Anand

Anika Anand is the programming director for LION Publishers and lives in Ballard with her husband and son.