Little wonder: Why it’s so hard to find affordable, high-quality child care

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The YMCA’s Early Learning Center at the Jefferson School is dedicated to providing high-quality child care to the Charlottesville/Albemarle community.  Photo: Eze Amos The YMCA’s Early Learning Center at the Jefferson School is dedicated to providing high-quality child care to the Charlottesville/Albemarle community. Photo: Eze Amos

Jessica Maslaney remembers trying to navigate the complex maze of child care options before her first child was born. “It’s a confusing process where everything matters, from cost to educational environment to teacher qualifications, and you’re just scrambling to figure it all out.” After toting her baby son to work with her at the Piedmont Family YMCA for his first seven months, Maslaney tried two different in-home care options and a commercial child care center in search of consistent, reliable care.

“The foundational issue is that you feel that nobody can watch your kids as well as you can,” she says, “so you start off kind of resenting the process from the beginning because you want more than anything to be that person. It’s an emotional journey.”

Now CEO of the Piedmont Family Y, Maslaney is part of a team dedicated to providing high-quality child care to the Charlottesville/Albemarle community through facilities like the YMCA’s Early Learning Center at the Jefferson School. While steep demand for affordable care should logically lead to increased supply, the twisted economics of child care can tie providers in knots.

Start with the cost of full-time care. “The average cost of child care for an infant in this area is $13,500 per year, and $11,000 for a toddler or preschooler,” says Barbara Hutchinson, vice president of community impact at the local United Way. At the top end, a handful of smaller centers in town charge upwards of $15,000 per year.

The biggest expense for providers is paying their staff. Because state law requires teacher/student ratios of 1:4 for infants and 1:8 for toddlers, and because child care is largely unfunded by the government, providers can’t afford to pay their staff anywhere close to what public school teachers make. “People who work in child care do not do it for the money,” says Maslaney. “We struggle with teacher retention because our teachers could go to Walmart and make $13 per hour while our pay range is $10 to $12.” That also has an effect on quality—teachers who earn a college degree in early childhood development often choose to teach in public schools, where they can receive higher pay and benefits.

Jennifer Slack, owner of Our Neighborhood Child Development Center, a private daycare near UVA, agrees that finding and retaining good teachers is a serious problem. “Child care is hard work, poorly paid, and poorly supported,” she says. “In a lot of ways, society undervalues it.”

Labor costs also limit providers’ ability to offer partial-day or off-hours care for part-time or shift workers. “Places like UVA Hospital and Sentara operate on 24-hour schedules, and Charlottesville has no child care centers that offer evenings, overnights, or weekends, so there’s nowhere for those parents to go,” says Hutchinson.

Beyond teacher compensation, child care centers have materials, insurance, and regulatory expenses. Facilities must be licensed and inspected to pass standards as specific as the depth of the mulch in the playground, and per-child square footage requirements for both indoor and outdoor space dictate how many children may be enrolled.

Simply finding an appropriate location can be daunting, and Slack calls local building and zoning codes “intense.” “We have been looking for property to expand into for years now but can’t find anything because of the combination of the high cost of commercial property in Charlottesville, the need for outdoor space for children to play, and the near-impossibility of transferring a property from residential to commercial zoning,” she says.

Even upper-income families are affected by the shortage of care. Slack’s center serves 48 children, from newborns to age 3, and charges over $1,600 a month per child (annually, that’s more than a year’s tuition at UVA), yet runs a lengthy waitlist. “There are many families who will never be able to get in, so I’d say it can be hard to find quality care at any cost,” she says.

The severe financial burden of child care expenses on a young family puts an effective lid on how much providers can charge, which makes it difficult for centers to stay afloat. “The crux of the problem is that people can’t work without child care, and child care needs to be high quality, and quality is driven by cost,” says Hutchinson. “It’s a vicious cycle not particular to Charlottesville, but one that exists all across the state and country.”

Addressing this problem is the focus of groups and agencies all across the region, and every step forward is hard-won. The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation advances initiatives such as Virginia Quality and Smart Beginnings to enhance the experience of young children in daycare centers and preschools. “High quality” providers prioritize teacher education, curriculum, and the facility’s environment and level of child interaction.

“If a baby is in child care 40 hours a week, what happens to that baby during those hours has everything to do with his or her developmental trajectory, so those hours need to be high quality,” says Gail Esterman, director of early learning at ReadyKids, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting children and families and to working with providers to improve quality.

Maintaining options such as the YMCA’s Early Learning Center, where 92 percent of families receive financial subsidies, depends on tapping steady sources of funding. “Child care in my opinion is not financially sustainable on its own,” says Maslaney, “so you have to have diverse funding streams.” The ELC draws resources from the Virginia Department of Social Services, the United Way, and a host of public and private grants.

Hutchinson points to a generous Charlottesville community, noting that this area of the state is in “better shape than average” in terms of funding. “Both private foundations and wealthy individuals have been phenomenally invested in early childhood care, and we are blessed to be a community that has that level of support,” she says.

Families who don’t qualify for subsidized care but still struggle with high costs often look to family-based care, where kids stay in a private home with an in-home caregiver. “One of the most sustainable models for affordable, high-quality care is home child care, but there are a lot of unlicensed programs because the licensure process is so difficult and expensive,” says Slack. Virginia law requires a license to provide home care for five or more children (not including those of the caregiver); below that limit, licensing is voluntary and there are no required background checks, regulations, or inspections.

In the end, Esterman believes child care is a human rights issue, and solutions will have to be addressed as a society. “As long as people are trying to just handle it individually, as opposed to looking at it as a community, the system will continue to be a jumble,” she says. “All children deserve a high-quality start to life.”

Photo: Eze Amos

When school’s canceled—but it’s still business as usual for parents 

By Susan Sorensen

Who doesn’t love a snow day? Well, for starters, working parents.

“I’ve spent years dreading that 5:30am call/text message from ACPS,” says Elaine Attridge, a mother of three and medical librarian. “My husband’s job isn’t flexible, so it’s up to me to cobble together half-baked plans that are the best of my poor options” when school is unexpectedly canceled.

Like many moms and dads who have to show up for work on days when the flakes are falling and schools are closed, Attridge has been known to load her children up with electronics and bring them to her office. She’s lucky, she says, because “I’ve had some very tolerant bosses, but multiple days of [my kids at work with me] is hard on everyone.” You can ask friends for help, but, as
Attridge points out, “How often can
I do that and keep the friendship?”

She says she’s rescheduled work meetings and taken vacation days to stay home with her children, adding that she’s still reeling from 2013. There were so many snow days that year (some courtesy of a March blizzard that dropped 16.5 inches on the area), Attridge refers to it as the “winter of my discontent.”

Some big local employers, like UVA and S&P Global, have recognized the problem and offer employees access to back-up child care. But if yours doesn’t, here are a few suggestions for when school is shuttered.

Plan ahead! You usually have some warning before a snowstorm (or a teacher work day), which means you can line up child care in advance. If you don’t have a regular sitter (or a relative who’s willing to step in), consider Hoositting (hoositting.com), a network of UVA students who will provide babysitting on short notice. 

ACAC to the rescue. On scheduled school days off, as well as some of the unscheduled ones, ACAC’s Adventure Central (978-7529) offers a summer camp-like experience (arts and crafts, sports, and other structured activities) called Kids Day Off. Cost is $55 per child for members, and $65 for nonmembers, and hours are 8am-5:30pm.

Network with your neighbors. Create a snow-day babysitting co-op where every family takes the others’ children in turn. If you have, say, four families, you’ll only have to cover one in every four days off of school. Bonus: The kids will take some of the burden off you by entertaining each other.   

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