Jay Walters can deal with misbehaving preschoolers. 

A teacher at child care nonprofit Launch, Walters has a system all worked out in their South Seattle classroom. Stickers when kids help out and listen to instructions, and a coveted prize box of toys the best-behaved can help themselves to at the end of the day.

But this year, Walters faces a different problem: Other teachers, or a lack thereof.

“We were supposed to have three teachers in our classroom,” said Walters, who uses they/them pronouns. “Somebody who was supposed to start on Monday just never showed up.”

As Seattle begins to emerge from the pandemic, the city’s child care providers say they are short-staffed and underfunded. The industry, already in a precarious situation before COVID-19, was devastated by the pandemic. Enrollment plummeted, forcing some providers to downsize and furlough staff. Those that stayed open dealt with the burden of protecting their staff and children.

In July 2020, about 17% of licensed child care providers in King County were closed, according to the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families. The closure of 359 providers accounted for 18,878 unavailable slots for preschool and school-age children. The agency doesn’t track enrollment figures.

A year later, many have not reopened.

An estimated 104 providers 4,607 spots are closed. The true count is likely larger as the DCYF’s numbers for child care spots available are from before the pandemic. Many providers that are still operating are struggling with staff burnout and costs that continue to limit capacity.

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With Washington formally reopened, more parents are returning to work and a new in-person school year looms. They’re depending on strained providers and short-handed teachers like Walters. But options are limited. As child care providers struggle to get back on track, so will Washington’s families.

Working parents struggle

Amanda Walkingstick, an education advocate from Tacoma, couldn’t find a provider that would take both her 5yearold son and 6monthold daughter. She said she’s fortunate she can work from home to look after them. Sometimes, she takes her business calls standing outside. 

“My back porch has windows in it, facing where the kids are,” Walkingstick explained. “So you can stand back there, have silence and still watch them.”

Waitlists are full at many facilities, including Launch’s summer site in Hawthorne Elementary School, where Walters works.

Sara Buckwitz, a supervisor and nurse at Neighborcare Health, dashes between clinical shifts from North Seattle to Rainier Beach. She wouldn’t be able to work, she said, if she couldn’t enroll her son Arthur at Launch.

“You always are making a choice between working and taking care of your child,” said Buckwitz, a single parent. “It’s a pretty rough spot to be in.”

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Other parents had to improvise. Before finding Launch, Carmen Hernandez spent the school year helping run a child care pod that rotated between several families’ homes. 

Her son Benicio’s kindergarten reopened for half days during the year but Hernandez, a home loan consultant, didn’t have a schedule flexible enough to pick him up and drop him off in the mornings. Creating a child care pod became the more feasible option. But it was far from easy.

“How do you support a kid who’s learning how to read and write?” Hernandez said. “I have no idea what I’m doing! I don’t do this for a living. Thank god for teachers.”

Staff face burnout

It wasn’t easy for teachers either. Between layoffs, low pay and understaffing, working through the pandemic took a toll on Washington’s child care workers.

At Launch, three of Walters’ colleagues left over the past year. Concerns about COVID-19 were stressful for some — Walters has asthma, and none of the children they work with are old enough to get vaccinated.

But Walters said what drove their co-workers to leave was not being able to give struggling children the individual care they needed in class.

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“It was getting harder and harder to make the time as we lost more staff,” they said. “Some people were just like, ‘I can’t do this. I’m trying my very best every single day, and I just don’t have the energy to do this.’ ”

Some child care providers were forced to lay off or furlough staff as they reduced operations. The YMCA cut more than 1,000 positions after closing many sites due to capacity restrictions, according to spokesperson Alonda Williams. This summer, only 44 YMCA-run sites in King County are open, down from more than 100 before the pandemic.

Launch’s summer programming began two weeks ago. Executive Director Angela Griffin said the nonprofit wasn’t able to recruit enough staff to open all of its sites. 

“People get paid more being on unemployment than working in child care, unfortunately,” Griffin said. “We’ve struggled to find staff who are willing to accept child care wages.” 

Costs increasing 

Advocates and providers say COVID-19 has only exposed a longstanding lack of funding for the industry. 

“COVID laid bare the real issues that we have in child care,” YMCA CEO Loria Yeadon said.

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Beyond struggling to pay competitive wages, operating costs for providers ballooned over the past year. Reduced enrollment strained the margins of larger child care centers like the YMCA. Providers also took on the extra costs of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

When Angela Griffin took the helm at Launch last June, she inherited a $1.9 million deficit.

“We had never had a deficit budget,” Griffin said. “We’ve had to work really hard to sustain our programs. We had to spend into our reserves, we increased our fundraising.”

Increased costs end up hurting low-income families the most. The base daily rate to enroll a child in a licensed child care center in King County $71.82 per day for preschool-age children — is already the highest in the state, according to the DCYF. 

The DCYF estimates 9,000 children are eligible for a child care subsidy in King County. But providers are often forced to limit the number of subsidized enrollment spots they can accept in order to stay in business.

“[I]t’s like pennies to the dollar for what it actually costs to deliver care,” said Phoebe Sade Anderson, CEO of Seattle-based community organization Child Care Resources. “You have child care providers who have to make decisions about whether or not they can accept the subsidy serving our most marginalized children.”

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Advocates say Washington’s Fair Start for Kids Act, which passed the state Legislature in April, is an encouraging first step. The act will increase subsidy amounts and cap copay requirements for families and direct more than $400 million toward early learning and child care between 2021 and 2023.

Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, called it “monumental,” but warned there are still families who won’t get aid.

“The subsidy only reaches families who are 200% of the poverty level,” Ryan said. “Child care can be more expensive than sending a kid to the University of Washington. It’s still very expensive.”

The act will also provide $300 million in emergency funding to child care providers. Ryan said the biggest challenge will be ensuring aid can help providers rebuild their decimated staffs quickly enough.

Launch’s Hawthorne site will expand back into the school cafeteria in the fall to accommodate more children. Whether they can hire enough staff to pick up the slack, Walters said, remains to be seen. 

“At this point, I’m practicing breathing,” Walters joked. “Just like I tell the children.”

Walkingstick said she is comfortable for now. She considered joining a waitlist for a nearby child care center, but would rather save the spot for someone who needs it more. But she worries about what her kids are missing out on, and that they aren’t getting enough time to play with other children their age.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “Well, where’s my village?”