Parenting in a pandemic: The search for child care

Kelly Gates, of Bowie, Maryland, and the kids she cares for every day at her in-home child care facility. (Courtesy Kelly Gates)

This story is part of “Parenting in a Pandemic,” WTOP’s continuing coverage of how parents are dealing with childcare, schooling and more through the coronavirus pandemic.

Not every D.C.-area school system has determined how often, if at all, kids will be back in the classroom this fall. Those that have are either beginning the year with distance learning, or a mix of distance learning and a couple of days per week in the classroom.

If you have kids in middle or high school, you might be able to trust they can do what they need to on their own while you go to work. If your kids are in elementary school, or even younger, you’ve probably spent a lot of time figuring out how you’ll work and who will watch them while you do.

If you’ve been searching for child care this summer, you know you’re not alone. Parents are often finding that the child care providers that are up and running are already full.

“I keep a waiting list,” said Kelly Gates, who runs an in-home child care facility at her home in Bowie, Maryland. “I refer people to ‘Locate Child Care’ for our county. Unfortunately … they’re calling me back and saying, ‘put me on your waitlist if anything opens, I can’t find anyone with openings.'”


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She has room for 12 kids in her home. Her waitlist has fluctuated from 16 last week to as many as 38 earlier this year. And she gets multiple calls from parents every day.

“I still have 16 people on the waiting list who call me regularly, just to see if they can do drop-in for a day,” she said.

When she finds out about an opening with another provider, she’ll call people on her waiting list to let them know. But she also knows around a dozen people who used to be in the child care business who couldn’t survive the pandemic, forced to close down when their revenue stream dried up.

“They lost a lot of income, a lot of clientele,” she said. “They are not open. They are out of business, and it’s heartbreaking.”

It’s a reality many child care providers around the U.S. are on the cusp of finding themselves in.

A study released this week by the National Association for the Education of Young Children said just 18% of child care facilities around the country are confident they’ll survive more than another year without any help.

And as advocates push Congress to include tens of billions of dollars for child care centers in the next stimulus plan — which is still being debated — almost 40% of child care facilities said they’ll be closing permanently without that funding coming through and helping them survive.

As the need for more child care is only increasing, in some cases, parents are still nervous about sending their kids to facilities. Nearly 90% of facilities say they’re serving fewer children now than they used to — the average enrollment decline is about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels.

However, the facilities are spending more on staff, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

At the Rainbow Child Development Center in Bowie — a commercial child care center that does preschool as well as before and aftercare for older children — planning for the fall is normally done by now. But with everything up in the air, they’re not accepting new clients right now.

And, with Prince George’s County Public Schools going with distance learning through January 2021, if they’re going to accept more children for full-day care, instead of before and after-school care, it won’t come without a cost.

“Then, it becomes an issue with staffing,” said Maria Campbell, the admissions director at Rainbow. “Before and aftercare — it’s generally in the morning and then again in the afternoon. So then, we’re talking having someone all day.”

“We generally do not budget for a full-time aftercare person,” Campbell added. “If the before and aftercare children have to be with us all day on certain days, it would cost those families more to have them here all day.”

How much help the staff would be able to provide to facilitate distance learning is also not clear yet.

For Gates, she’s hoping parents who have a passion for children and are pondering a career change might see the opportunity that exists.

“This is the time to come into the field,” Gates said. “Open up a child care [facility]. We desperately need you.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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