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San Diego is still feeling the impact of child care centers closing in the pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

During the pandemic, many child care providers had to at least temporarily close their doors. From member station KPBS in San Diego, reporter Claire Trageser says even temporary closures were enough to push some over the brink.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: Carolina Festo walks over the cracked concrete outside her home in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood and envisions something entirely different - a play space for kids.

CAROLINA FESTO: So I want to fix, to put the concrete and put the fake grasses. But it's a lot of money. I cannot afford it to do that.

TRAGESER: Festo is a refugee from Burundi who used to run a home child care with 12 kids. When COVID started, she had to close. All her clients were refugees who worked in hotel housekeeping, and they were laid off.

FESTO: I lost my clients because the parents didn't go to work, so they decided to stay with the kids. So I lost my job that way.

TRAGESER: Festo's child care was one of almost 4,000 that closed in California after COVID hit. During the pandemic, the rate of child care closures nearly tripled - on average, almost five a day. And many of those businesses, like Festo's, have not been able to reopen.

FESTO: It was very tough and very difficult for me to come back in business because a lot of clients moved out of San Diego.

TRAGESER: In many places, closures hit the most vulnerable neighborhoods the hardest. And while there was some government aid for child care, it didn't do enough. Festo says with more money, she'd be able to build an extra room and care for kids whose parents worked night shifts.

FESTO: So my plan, I wanted to put one more room upstairs.

KIM MCDOUGAL: And a lot of them just couldn't make it. They didn't have a savings account they could rely on.

TRAGESER: Kim McDougal runs the Childcare Resource Service for the San Diego YMCA. She says even a small disruption is enough to put child care providers out of business, especially in lower-income areas.

MCDOUGAL: Many of our higher-income communities were able to maintain their child care supply. And that's probably because they're able to charge a higher price for the care.

TRAGESER: And those businesses likely had a safety net. She says during COVID, the country lost about 9% of its child care supply - and there was already a big deficit.

ARIANA STECK: Are you so happy? Yeah? What do you think?

TRAGESER: Ariana Steck sits at a desk in her small apartment with four different baby contraptions all within arm's reach. Right now, her 6-month-old son, Griffin, is standing in a jumper surrounded by colorful buttons that play music.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD'S TOY PLAYING MUSIC)

STECK: I started using a licensed family child care home for one day a week. And the rest of the days, I am child care and employee.

TRAGESER: Steck has been back at work for a month. While she put Griffin on child care waitlists long before he was actually born, she hasn't been able to find full-time care.

STECK: Many centers didn't have vacancies until the winter of 2022. One center told me they had over 100 infants on their waitlist (laughter). I was like, well, where - he's going to be, you know, in preschool by the time you call us.

TRAGESER: So she's attempting to work from home while caring for a baby.

STECK: My very first week back, I started my days at about 4 in the morning, and he slept until 7, so I got three hours.

TRAGESER: That wasn't sustainable. Now, she gets a little more sleep and tries to work while Griffin plays.

STECK: Like tummy time in his bedroom - we have a little footstool - I park my laptop on that, and he's sitting right next to me.

TRAGESER: Stack actually works in part doing child care referrals, so she has better access to child care than almost anyone. And when she was pregnant, she knew there was a child care crisis.

STECK: But once, like, you're sitting in it, you're like, oh, this is a crisis. There is a legitimate thing happening here where there is a huge demand for infant care and the supply is just not there.

TRAGESER: She says if she didn't have a flexible employer, she'd have to quit her job.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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