About 20% of Connecticut’s child care centers have permanently closed since the coronavirus pandemic, and preschool capacity has dropped by more than 10,000 slots since 2020, leaders of the nonprofit Connecticut Voices for Children said Monday as they released a new report on early childhood during COVID-19.
At the same time, the state’s child care costs remain the fifth-highest in the nation, and many women are dropping out of the workforce to care for their families, they said.
“The fragility of our child care system has never been more apparent. … [But] the early child care sector was in a state of crisis even before COVID,” said Emily Byrne, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children.
“The first five years of a child’s life are critical to lifelong health and well-being, and high-quality early child care provides a strong foundation,” she said, noting it is particularly important for children of color who “are likely to face more adverse experiences as young children, which includes excess stress.”
In February 2020, right before the pandemic hit, Gov. Ned Lamont and Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye announced the state had an infant and toddler child care capacity shortage of about 50,000 slots, said Sarah Miller, the report’s author and a graduate school research and policy intern for Connecticut Voices for Children. Miller said the available offerings could meet only about one-third of families’ needs statewide.
From 2020 to 2021, preschool slots dropped about 15% to 54,537, a decline of more than 10,000 as child care centers closed permanently and physical distance requirements limited capacity, the report stated.
“Program offerings are even less accessible … and women are dropping out of the workforce at record rates,” Byrne said.
In 2020, Connecticut the fifth-most expensive child care in the nation after Washington D.C., Massachusetts, California and Minnesota, “in many cases outstripping the costs of college,” she added. As of April, the average weekly fee for center-based infant and toddler care in Connecticut was $313 — more than $16,000 per year — and the highest fee researchers encountered was $623 per week.
While the state does offer a program called Care 4 Kids to subsidize fee costs for low-income families, Miller said that in order for a family of four to qualify, their total household income must be less than about $60,000.
[Related] Daily coronavirus updates: COVID-19 hospitalizations, positivity trending downward as Connecticut prepares to reopen »
“This leaves many families that don’t qualify for Care 4 Kids but at the same time cannot afford market-rate child care,” she said, noting the program often does not cover the full cost for providing quality child care.
“If all the families in a family child care home or center are utilizing Care 4 Kids, the program needs to either cut back on costs that can impact quality or charge a higher rate than what Care 4 Kids provides, and then ask families to pay the difference,” Miller explained. “But if your income is low enough to qualify, this is probably not possible.”
“This is part of an economic model that is really precarious and difficult to sustain,” she added.
Byrne pointed out that program quality is also impacted by child care workers’ and early educators’ low wages, with the families of Connecticut child care workers being about twice as likely to live in poverty than workers in other industries.
In the nonprofit’s 2020 report, which focused on family child care homes — private homes that offer such services — they found that owners who do not charge more than what Care 4 Kids covers typically earned between $6.10 and about $8.30 per hour, Miller said. Those who work in child care centers typically earn minimum wage, $12 an hour, or just under $25,000 annually, she said.
At the same time, families employed in other industries are also impacted by increasingly limited child care availability.
“This has hit women particularly hard. State unemployment claims in mid-March showed women to be over half — about 60% — of the claims,” said Miller. “With all these issues combined, we’re really facing not just a child care crisis but a labor crisis as well.”
Byrne said: “Black, Latinx and indigenous women are especially feeling the multiple effects of being more likely to have lost their jobs, being on the frontlines as essential workers and solving their child care challenges on their own.”
One of the “silver linings” of the pandemic is an increased public awareness of the importance of child care for a functioning economy, Miller said, discussing some of the temporary initiatives put in place by the federal and state governments to support child care.
Among those were the Paycheck Protection Program loans and grants through the Office of Early Childhood to help cover COVID-related costs. The state has also slightly increased Care 4 Kids income eligibility, Miller said, and extended the program to cover elementary school-age children as they learned remotely. Family contribution fees were suspended for six months, through September, and Lamont has proposed allocating $5.3 million of American Rescue Plan funding to cover the fees through December.
The governor has also proposed putting $3.5 million toward free preschool this summer for children ages 3 and 4 through September for about 10,000 lower- and middle-class families. On a national level, U.S. President Joe Biden is calling for free universal preschool. Still, the report said long-term efforts and investments are necessary to ensure every Connecticut family has access to high quality, affordable programs going forward.