Last week, Illinois U.S. Rep. Danny Davis convened a hearing on the lack of available child care as parents plan their return to the workplace in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Quality affordable childcare is a cornerstone of parents’ ability to work and move up the economic ladder,” Davis said during the hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support. “I know essential workers who couldn’t work because they had no one to watch their children. I know parents who’ve lost so much income that they can’t afford child care in order to work.”
But for many Illinois families, the pandemic just made an already difficult situation even worse. A 2018 survey by the nonpartisan Center for American Progress found that nearly 60% of Illinoisans live in areas with few or no center-based options for child care.
Even in places with sufficient providers, many parents are unable to afford the cost of the programs, have difficulty finding providers who care for children during nonstandard hours or care that accommodates children with special needs.
And according to Illinois Action for Children, a survey from April 2020 found that only half of licensed home-based child care providers were open then, further reducing available slots for children of parents planning to return to workplaces as the state phase four of Gov. J.B. Pritkzer’s reopening plan.
The majority of licensed child care providers have been closed during phase one and two of the state’s reopening plan, though some remained open to provide child care for essential workers. That still did not secure spots for every essential worker who needed them.
Among the families still looking for care is Chicago-area mother Regina McChriston. McChriston, a CT scan technician, testified at Davis’ subcommittee hearing about the struggle she and her 2 1/2 year old daughter’s father have had finding reliable child care during the pandemic. Both parents are essential workers, and in her testimony, McChriston said she had to reduce her work hours to care for her child.
“For us it’s very frustrating and stressful not to have child care facilities open during this pandemic. The world counts on us and although we are willing to step up in our roles as essential workers, it feels like the rug has been snatched from underneath our feet, taking away our choice to work,” McChriston testified.
Like many other parents, McChriston’s family has turned to their own parents to help out with the child care in the interim, which presents its own difficulties.
“Our parents are caregivers for my daughter, and they have been a big help. My mother is only able to help so much because she lost her own job,” said McChriston. “However, she is over 60, which means she’s at a greater risk of becoming ill. This is another thing for me to worry about and balance as I try to care for my child and make an income.”
Shauna Ejeh of Illinois Action for Children says that unfortunately, McChriston’s experience is not unusual in Illinois.
“Parents didn’t have very many choices,” said Ejeh. “Those who chose centers didn’t have any other option. Other folks had family members come in or had neighbors or friends step in, those who had the means hired nannies. We were able to open some sites … but we think during this next phase it’ll be even more challenging because the ratios have only increased a little bit and so there are only a certain number of slots.”
Moreover, even parents eager to leave the home office may be less eager to send their child to a provider while the pandemic continues.
“I am literally filled with anxiety and fear when I think about my daughter’s well-being while trying to focus on performing my job as a CT technologist in the ER. As a front-line health care worker I have witnessed just how ill people are who battle COVID-19,” said McChriston. “As we all learn about this new virus and the damage it can do, it is very important to try to quarantine, but as I am an essential worker in a hospital, I am unable to do so.”
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has issued detailed guidelines for child care providers to operate safely during phase four, which includes enhanced sanitizing procedures, daily health checks of staff and children, physical distancing, personal protective equipment for staff and children over age 2, reduced group sizes and a higher staff-to-child ratio.
Ejeh acknowledges that last one is a tough order for providers who are already financially stressed. “It is significantly less when you consider that providers get paid for each child they take care of based on the number of children,” said Ejeh.