Lynette Mitchell’s small Chapel Hill child care center had reopened from Christmas break for just a few hours when she got the call: One of the kids there had tested positive for COVID-19.
That news sent everyone at Harvest Learning Center scrambling. Staff rushed to call parents, who had to leave work to pick up their children. The parents then had to figure out how to juggle their jobs with their kids, as quarantine rules required the center to shut the classroom down.
When the kids returned, more cases popped up. “It’s just been a mess, unlike anything I’ve seen,” she said. “You could literally shut down a classroom every week. That’s not sustainable.”
Child care centers have had to deal with two- to three-week mandatory quarantines since the start of the pandemic. But in the past month, the record-breaking case numbers from the Omicron variant has made the situation much worse.
“Last week was definitely the worst week we have experienced by far since COVID began,” said Lauren Hayworth, who owns four A Child’s World Learning Centers in the Winston-Salem area. She also serves as president of the N.C. Licensed Child Care Association.
Extended classroom closures at child care centers ripple throughout the economy. Parents have to miss work to stay home with their kids, and that exacerbates the high number of COVID-related absences that many in-person workplaces are already experiencing.
For weeks, child care providers pushed for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to relax quarantine rules to match regulations for K-12 schools. That finally happened last Friday: A revised COVID “toolkit” for child care now says that unvaccinated young children exposed to someone with the virus can return after five days if they wear a mask, 10 days if they don’t or are too young to wear one.
The previous rule was a 14-day quarantine, sometimes stretching even longer if a family member tested positive.
Still, centers expect further disruptions until the Omicron wave passes and case numbers decline. In addition to affecting families, the quarantines magnify staffing shortages the centers have faced for months.
When some staff members are out sick or home because of an exposure, others must pick up the slack, working long hours and sometimes skipping lunch breaks.
“They get to the point where they think, “I can’t do this anymore,’” Hayworth said. Some have quit for jobs in other industries; Mitchell said she’s had staff leave for jobs in the local public school system, which is also desperate for staff and able to pay higher wages.
That challenge also leads to a child care shortage for parents looking to re-enter the workforce. Hayworth said some classrooms in her centers have gone unused for months because there aren’t enough people to staff them.
Both Hayworth and Mitchell say they get frequent calls from parents seeking child care, and they don’t have spaces to offer. Most parents are told it could be six months before a slot opens up.
Looking further into the future, child care providers worry about their ability to provide affordable tuition while retaining quality staff with competitive wages.
Mitchell said some centers are charging up to $450 a week for infant care, which is out of reach for most families. So far, temporary federal grant funding has allowed for pay increases without increasing tuition.
“You’ve got to get your people up to $15 at a minimum,” Mitchell said.
While the federal grants will eventually run out, subsidies that child care centers receive to serve low-wealth families haven’t increased in years. And in addition to wages, costs for supplies and food are increasing rapidly.
“We have to rethink child care,” Mitchell said. “It is a valuable resource, and it is a necessary resource. It looks like we’re going to have to have some consistent federal assistance.”