Thousands of Childcare Slots Were Lost in Pandemic; As Need Increases, Many More Are in Danger

This story is part of our new reporting series examining the various pressures affecting the cost of living for San Diegans. See more stories here.

Some classes at Honey Bear Preschool and Daycare in Point Loma are so full right now that there is a waiting list. When we asked Rebeca Garcia, the administrator, how long it would take for someone to find a spot, she laughed.

“No idea,” she said. “It’s going to be very long.”

From North County to South, families struggle to find and pay for child care. The crisis – and it has become one – is two-sided. It’s not just about cost, but also access. Even if you can afford good childcare, booking a place has become a brutal experience. And for the tens of thousands of San Diego families who can’t afford full-time day care, things are getting tense.

For an infant and toddler, full-time care can cost between $16,000 and $20,000 per year on average.

At Bright Horizons Family Center in Del Mar, there are spots available, but for a 2-year-old, a family must pay $2,310 a month, or almost $28,000 a year. At Dino Daycare in National City, parents can pay $300 a week. State subsidies provide up to $1,200 per month so Dino can make ends meet and keep the program relatively affordable.

But there are no places open at Dino Daycare.

The patchwork that was San Diego’s childcare infrastructure before COVID-19 was already full of holes. Childcare centers barely finished. Workers were unhappy with poverty wages and families struggled to get care. The Workforce Partnership sought to raise the alarm about how badly the system had gone and the impact it would have on workforce readiness and the health and prosperity of the region. Advocacy on the topic has become more organized.

San Diego for Every Child, a coalition of groups that have come together to address childhood poverty, has been increasingly vocal about the lack of access to professional child care.

Then COVID-19 broke that already shaky system.

Before the pandemic hit the United States, San Diego only had enough licensed care to serve about 40 percent of families with two working parents or a single working parent. We’ve lost 10 percent of that since then, according to the YMCA of San Diego County. The YMCA San Diego serves as the region’s child care resource and referral system. It has unique access to data and that data shows things could get even worse.

Sophia Rodriguez’s husband Dan, who works as a software quality assurance engineer, holds their 10-month-old son as he works on March 8, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler for Voice of San Diego

Fourteen child care centers and 138 family child care providers that did not officially close have also not yet reopened. This could mean another 2,236 slots are lost to parents looking for childcare, even as the need increases with increased employment.

This causes big problems.

“We see intense burnout for mothers, for families who struggle with stress every day,” said Kim McDougal, the executive director of the YMCA Child Care Resource Service. “That kind of chronic stress can lead to negative outcomes for mental and emotional well-being. That kind of stress can affect children their whole lives.”

Of all the parts of San Diego’s cost of living crisis, access to and affordability of child care seems like the one we can most easily address. Unlike housing, it doesn’t require massive construction, difficult land use decisions, or unfathomable adjustments to our economy. Unlike fuel prices or car prices, they are not subject to geopolitical turmoil, global supply chains or scarce natural resources. Unlike water and power, it does not require massive infrastructure.

But so far, policy solutions fall far short and some of them may worsen the situation.

The most prominent state action is the governor’s and the Legislature’s push to expand access to transitional kindergarten – to give all 4-year-olds access to essentially free care and school. Previously, the program was limited to children born between September and December who were in something of a middle stage: not quite old enough for kindergarten, but close.

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View the number of licensed child care programs in San Diego in another tab.

Ironically, however, the measure could destroy the fragile economy of the existing system. This is because 4-year-olds are the cheapest group to care for – a teacher can supervise more of them than babies or toddlers. Essentially, the economics of a childcare facility depend on the parents of 4-year-olds subsidizing the care of younger children.

If 4-year-olds go away, so does that subsidy.

“It could be really devastating to our child care community. We expect a large number of additional closures unless something changes,” McDougal said.

And it may not even help parents much. Many of the transitional preschool programs only care for children for three hours in the morning or afternoon. Parents cannot function without additional care.

“Working families need a nine-hour day,” McDougal said. In February, state Sen. Connie Leyva introduced Senate Bill 976 to provide for a universal preschool benefit throughout the state. If passed, parents will be given vouchers to use with any licensed provider. The YMCA of San Diego expressly supports this.

Neither that nor the massive investment in child care envisioned in the Build Back Better spending bill is close to reality. Meanwhile, the situation is getting worse.

The same pressures facing employers across the country are felt in childcare settings where pay is notoriously poor. They often could not afford the same care they provide. Preschool teachers leave those jobs – they can make more money at Walmart or In-N-Out.

“It’s been very, very challenging to find qualified teachers,” said Garcia of Honey Bear. “It was difficult with the prices of everything going up, because then we have to raise our prices. It’s a vicious cycle.”

All that sent families scrambling. Some leave the workforce, mostly women. Some are staggered hours or combine low-cost or family options that are less reliable. This leads to workforce challenges.

This has not gone unnoticed by policymakers, many of whom have children of their own and are struggling to figure it out. San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, who now has three children, pushed the city to consider it during the pandemic. Now, along with Councilman Raul Campillo, he has pushed the city of San Diego to begin a study of all its buildings to see which children could potentially house child care services.

They identified several dozen. But there’s a catch: City laws prohibit city buildings from being used for education. They may have to set up a ballot to change it.

This is a facility challenge. This is a labor challenge. This is an affordability and financial challenge. And as you begin to consider its complexity, the hope that this could be the one area in the cost of living crisis where you can make a difference quickly begins to dwindle.

“I think, until we see significant state, federal and local investment, it’s going to get worse. Not kind of worse, exponentially worse,” Erin Hogeboom, director of policy and strategy at San Diego for Every Child.

Alisha Wadhwa contributed to this story.

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