York County child care struggles to keep up with rising demand as pandemic lifts

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

With demand rising for child care as the country moves out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many local programs are feeling the pressure to meet the need despite limited funding and staff. 

The pandemic landed a major blow to child care providers across the state, with many parents taking care of their children while they worked from home or unsure of the safety of the programs. According to Erica Heller, quality manager for Child Care Consultants, a local nonprofit child care resource for parents, 44 York County child care programs have closed permanently since March 2020. 

Now that COVID-19 cases are slowing nationwide, demand for child care is rising again. But with fewer programs available, York Day Nursery CEO Brian Grimm said existing programs are feeling the pressure to meet the need. 

"Parents are scrambling," Grimm said. 

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York Day Nursery, a nonprofit in York City, currently offers early childhood education to 108 students from infants to age 5, Grimm said. Despite the pandemic, demand for the program remained stable, Grimm said, largely because more than 70% of their families included essential workers.

After a forced shutdown from March to June last year, Grimm said, the program was allowed to reopen under 50% of its normal capacity. He said they reached 50% capacity in about one week, and they reopened at full capacity in August. 

The program currently has a 1½-year-long waitlist, and demand has increased for York Day Nursery's services in recent months, Grimm said. The facility gets five to 10 calls a week from families looking to enroll their students.

In response, he said, the nursery is looking to expand services in the fall, but nothing has been finalized yet. 

York Day Nursery was fortunate enough to retain its staff during the pandemic through a balance of private and public funding, plus extra fundraising efforts, Grimm said. But other local child care providers were not as fortunate. 

Lead teacher Dana Shifflett, left, plays with Ra'lanii Camphor, 2, in the Toddler 2 classroom at York Day Nursery in York City, Friday, July 9, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The child care industry was already struggling before the pandemic hit, Grimm said. Many providers that stayed open reduced staff in an effort to keep up with the rising operating costs during the pandemic, Heller said. 

With demand for child care growing again and fewer providers available, Grimm said many programs can't afford to hire enough staff to accommodate the number of requests. 

Additional funding isn't coming from the state, as the recently approved state budget kept funding level for Child Care Works, Pennsylvania's child care subsidy program, at about $266 million, according to Department of Human Services spokesperson Erin James.

Heller said this was a disappointment for child care advocacy groups that pushed for higher funding in the state budget. Now, programs are left to rely on support from the American Rescue Plan, but information on how child care providers will be supported through the plan remains unclear, Heller said. 

The limited access to child care programs is likely to have a long-term impact on the local community, Grimm said, as many parents are still unable to return to work. Heller said fewer students participating in early childhood education will also have an impact on them in their adult years. 

"This is our future workforce," Heller said.