The child care and early education needs of Sonoma County’s young children and their working parents continue get worse, and are now being called a “crisis” by child care leaders, elected officials and other social service organizations.
The recent natural disasters beginning in 2017 and the coronavirus pandemic have doubled the problem, with the closure at the beginning of the pandemic of almost half the county’s licensed child care centers and licensed private family child care homes. Those that remained open were required to lower their enrollments to meet social distancing measures.
Sonoma County is home to just over 90,000 children ages 0-17, and only 12,749 were enrolled in a childcare program prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Infant and toddler care services were only meeting 34% of the demand, prior to the pandemic. For school-aged children, ages 6 to 12, only half the need for 13,672 school-aged spaces was being met, according to the most recent County Child Care Community Profile, prepared by the Sonoma County Office of Education in 2015. There is an even more urgent need for providing child care services to 22,000 low-income families that qualify for state subsidies but often can’t find available services in the needed location or with workable schedules. In 2015, the county only had 3,522 subsidized spaces.
In late March, a consortium of county child care and early education leaders asked the county and eight cities to fund $5 million for post-pandemic recovery to cover five years of expanded services. These included early childhood mental health ($1 million), safety-net navigation ($500,000), home visiting services ($1 million), direct support to child care providers ($1 million) and stabilization of 0-5 infant and toddler services ($1.5 million.) The smaller cities are being asked to fund $40,000 each and larger cities are being asked for $120,000 to $240,000. The effort is being led by First 5 Sonoma County which is allocating matching funds from Prop. 10 (anti-tobacco funds) to address rising impacts of parental substance abuse, childhood trauma, increased cases of child abuse and long-term impacts of poverty and low percentages of school readiness.
Like all parts of America, Sonoma County has a “mixed delivery” system of early childhood education and child care services. This includes private licensed homes, public before- and after-school programs, licensed and coordinated child care centers, the federal Head Start program and unlicensed care from relatives and neighbors.
The “mixed delivery” system could also be described as a “hit and miss” or “gaps and holes” system.
Melanie Dodson, executive director for the county’s nonprofit Community Child Care Council (4Cs), doesn’t shy away from calling the situation a “crises,” using the plural version of crisis. She lists a lack of services, unaffordability, low caregiver salaries, loss of work days or hours by working parents and extra burdens on women, low-income families and ethnic minorities.
“Our culture needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps,” Dodson recently said, citing a half-century of a broken system still based on a society that was just emerging from World War II. “I’ve been fighting this same battle for 20 years. We don’t have the right hours or the right places at affordable costs, and we have undervalued and underpaid caregivers.”
Without any subsidies, Sonoma County parents are paying a range of $12,000 to almost $20,000 per year, per child for various child care programs. Government subsidies for parents and child care centers are based on past years’ surveys and do not take into account Sonoma County’s high cost of living.
Some of the tuition or care charges collected by Dodson’s 4Cs include $175 per week for 3 to 3.5 hours per day; half-day preschool costs $755 per month; school day care (6 hours daily) costs $940 per month; and extended daily care (9 -10 hours) costs $1,425 per month.
Infant and toddler care is the scarcest and most expensive service. Current COVID-19 safety precautions have greatly increased these costs. Hourly care in licensed private family care homes averages $11.07 per hour, but can cost as much as $15 per hour in some communities, according to a 4Cs survey.
Currently, there is a series of state and federal early childhood education and child care proposals, extended tax credits, one-time COVID-19 pandemic relief and calls for universal kindergarten and transitional kindergarten for older 4-year-olds. These proposals represent billions of one-time or recurring government funding. Dodson and others in her profession are grateful for this new funding, but also point out that very little of these initiatives address the historical crises of the “mixed delivery” system.