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Closer Look: York County's child care shortages worsen while schools move online

After mixing potting soil, Ali Collier-DeChristopher and her son Enzo, 6, use a soil blocker while planting beans at the family's Brabble Hill Farm in Codorus Township Monday, July 27, 2020. A kindergartner at Friendship Elementary School last year, Ali said Enzo will attend first grade via the Southern York County School District's Digital Academy curriculum. Bill Kalina photo

Child care providers could be stretched thin this fall as working parents who cannot stay home for online learning are forced to send their children away for the day.

More than 150 child care providers throughout Pennsylvania have notified the state since the pandemic began that they intend to close, including eight in York County. And 65 have closed already, according to the state Department of Human Services.

The rash of closures will only further stress a system that's been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of the public school districts in York County are planning only partial reopenings, with several days of classwork fully online. And that means working parents will have to find ways to either adjust their schedules or secure a spot in the region's shrinking number of day care facilities. 

“This is a BIG issue for children K-3rd grade with parents that must work out of the home,” Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, said in an email.

Reduced occupancy limits, intended to mitigate COVID-19, will likely prevent child care centers from expanding their services to school-aged children, Barber said.

The state Department of Human Services' Office of Child Development and Early Learning reports 7,017 licensed providers statewide.

As cases of the virus rise and a traditional school reopening becomes more tenuous, more districts are shifting their plans to include hybrid and online models. West Shore School District has gone as far as announcing about one month of entirely online distance learning before a phased in-person return.

Little Lambs Learning Center located at 2270 North Susquehanna Trail in Manchester Township, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. The center notified the Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Development and Early Learning of its decision not to reopen. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

More:West Shore schools to reopen wholly online, transition later

Jolene Finley, a single mother and working parent at West Shore, would have to stay home to support her 6-year old son, as his day care does not take school-aged children outside of the summer months.

That could mean frequent interruptions, or long hours helping him with homework when she should be tending to her 4-year-old in the evenings. And if she cannot give him proper attention, the 6-year-old might need to repeat first grade.

But she knows she's still one of the lucky ones.

"I'm not blind to the fact that I have an advantage working a position that can be done from home and an employer that allows that arrangement," Finley said in an email.

When she worked in the hospitality industry, there was a strict attendance policy.

"(Parents) in employment positions similar to that may be faced with choosing to send an ill child to school or miss work and risk losing their job and subsequently be unable to provide for their family," she said.

Munchkin Meadow Preschool, the previous location of Keystone Learning Academy, shown at 2101 Carlisle Rd. in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo. The academy notified the Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Development and Early Learning of its decision not to reopen.

A large number of single mothers are the primary breadwinners in their families, working high-risk jobs with limited benefits and no paid sick leave, said Chris Stewart, CEO of Brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists.

"The children in their care are at increased risk of having a loss of income, being financially unstable as a family and entering into other systems," he said.

The closures of child care centers followed in the wake of state-mandated shutdowns this spring. Many of those that stayed open to families of essential workers saw significantly fewer enrollments. 

More:'It's a dire situation': York County child care open to essential workers, despite risks

"We have had to rebuild our clientele," said Lauren Skudder, program director for Weigelstown Child Care, in Dover Township.

Children play outside at Weigelstown Child Care Center, Thursday, April 2, 2020. The day care has been permitted to stay open during the Governor's shutdown due to the high number of essential employee parents they serve.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Weigelstown Child Care's two centers are about three-quarters full now and are only accepting children for before and after care, such as early dismissals. It is not available to those who need full-time care for virtual learning days, unless those become mandatory.

"Accommodating online schooling is not ideal for us," Skudder said, because it would require additional staffing, monitoring devices and schoolwork they are not trained to handle.

Skudder said she would also be concerned about networks crashing and managing lessons that occur at varying times throughout the day.

Barber said about 515 providers statewide have yet to reopen, but 43% of those are school-based or for school-age children and not normally open in the summer.

However, the governor is distributing $220 million in CARES Act funding for child care, and more than 100 providers have declined funds, indicating they intend to remain closed.

Closer Look

Barber said that anecdotally she's heard from providers that enrollment is anywhere from 18% to 70% of what it was before the shutdown — between 30% and 40% on average.

“Families are slow to come back and providers are hoping enrollment will pick up by (September),” she said.

Another concern, however, are the thousands of school-aged children who depend upon providers that utilize school-based spaces such as gyms, libraries, multipurpose rooms and classrooms, she added.

Districts might not be opening these areas to outside groups from the get-go.

However, South Mountain Elementary, in the Northern York County School District, confirmed it would be hosting the Mechanicsburg Learning Center to provide before- and after-care.

About half, or 50,000, children in child care who receive subsidies are K-12, Barber said.

This is part of a regular series at The York Dispatch, where Dispatch staffers delve into a new topic that we believe deserves a Closer Look.