As parts of New Hampshire’s economy begin returning to something like business as usual, one key piece of the puzzle has been child care: will parents be able to find someone to watch their kids when they go back to work?
The state says there are plenty of open child care spots available across New Hampshire -- in all parts of the state, and for all age groups. But the picture is a little different when you look up close. Parents say they can’t go back to work because they can’t find reliable care, and child care providers say they’re turning families away every day.
In March, Jennifer Houle took time off of her job as a medical receptionist after a potential exposure to COVID-19. Then her son’s school closed. Then every school closed. And then she was furloughed.
“It all happened so fast,” she said. “Just sort of like okay, we’re just rolling into this new normal as fast as possible. It’s just kind of survival mode.”
Houle lives in Hudson with her husband, a software engineer, and her 6-year-old son, Ben.
Ben was in half-day Kindergarten last year and has ADHD, so when school went remote, teaching became Houle’s full-time job.
“He really needed a parent with him to be able to do his schoolwork,” said Houle.
As summer approached, Houle started looking for child care options, thinking she’d eventually be going back to work. But the daycare center in Nashua Ben attended when he was younger couldn’t take him. Most other centers in the area either weren’t accepting new families or didn’t take school-aged children. Most day camps were closed.
So when Houle’s office started bringing furloughed employees back in, she had zero options for child care. That meant she wouldn’t be going back to work. For the Houle family, relying on a single income won’t be easy.
“I’m just sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop at this point,” she said. “We’ve cut down on a lot of purchases and if we have to we’ll cut down on some more.”
Child care centers struggle to stay open
It’s not just a financial burden on families. Child care centers have been struggling, too.
“We took on a tremendous amount of additional expenses and debt that we will not be able to recoup,” said Kim McKenny, director of Easterseals Child Development and Family Resource Center in Manchester.
Her center stayed open throughout the pandemic, in spite of revenue losses and increased operational costs.
At first, they had some extra support from the state. Before COVID-19, about 70 percent of the center’s population was children on income-based child care scholarships. The state paid centers 100 percent of the tuition for these families at the start of the pandemic, regardless of whether or not the children were actually attending daycare.
That meant centers continued to take in revenue, parents who sent their children to daycare had one less expense to pay for, and parents who kept their kids home didn’t have to worry about losing their spot.
But when the state payments ran out in June, centers like McKenny’s had to start filling spots as quickly as possible just to stay afloat.
“We just had to take first-come, first-serve,” she said. “Whoever walked through the door filled the spots.”
That meant many of the spots that were being saved for low-income families disappeared.
McKenny says she’s worried about all the families she can no longer serve.
“There are not enough child care spots in the state to get the workforce back on its feet,” said McKenny. “We’re turning at least one family away a day. If that’s just us at this one location, what’s everybody else doing?”
State officials support innovation
The state insists there are around a thousand open child care slots in New Hampshire, and that there have been throughout most of the pandemic.
But Marti Ilg, Deputy Director of the Division of Economic and Housing Stability for DHHS says, given the operational challenges child care centers are under, it’s no surprise families aren’t able to access the same level of care as they were before COVID-19.
Add to that fears of COVID-19 spreading, Ilg says parents and providers alike are coming up with creative solutions -- everything from outdoor classrooms to neighborhood child care co-ops in which parents take turns watching each other's children.
“I expect some of these innovations to stay,” she said. “Just as we may not all return back to work, I’m expecting that programming for children and families might look a little different, and there may be even more options than before.”
The state will soon offer virtual training sessions to parents interested in starting a child care co-op. The training will cover health and safety, behavioral management, and curriculum ideas.
Parents step up
Parents like Ostin Bernier are looking to take it one step further.
After both her son’s daycare center and her daughter’s before-and-after school program closed permanently due to COVID-19, Bernier decided to leave her career to start Ostin’s Kiddos, a licensed child care center, right out of her own home in Enfield.
“I was kind of looking for a way to spend more time with my family,” she said. “And given the loss of daycare, the loss of after school options, it just felt like the universe was speaking to us to make this change.”
But this change is a complicated one, and although Bernier has been working with the state, there’s still a lot to figure out.
“We’ve had to submit applications, we’ve had to talk to families to see if there was an interest, we’ve had to do zoning meetings, planning meetings,” she said. “We’ve had to take out a loan to make changes to our house to make sure things were up to code.”
Bernier says this change will be good for her family. She’s leaving the job she’s had for the last 10 years as a radiation therapist, but says the amount her family will be saving in child care costs will make it well worth it. Plus, it will mean no more late nights at work, away from her kids.
“I am looking forward to having a predictable schedule,” she said. “And actually being able to see my family, and help my kids with their work, and know I’m going to be able to be there to tuck them in at night.”
It’s a source of comfort for her neighbors and community, too. Bernier says she already has four families signed up for Ostin’s Kiddos. And with the unpredictability of the coming school year, she will likely have more families turning to her in the fall.