Seattle Times Education Lab July 13, 2021
Jay Walters can deal with misbehaving preschoolers.
A teacher at child care nonprofit Launch, Walters has a system all worked out in their South Seattle classroom. Stickers when kids help out and listen to instructions, and a coveted prize box of toys the best-behaved can help themselves to at the end of the day.
But this year, Walters faces a different problem: Other teachers, or a lack thereof.
“We were supposed to have three teachers in our classroom,” said Walters, who uses they/them pronouns. “Somebody who was supposed to start on Monday just never showed up.”
As Seattle begins to emerge from the pandemic, the city’s child care providers say they are short-staffed and underfunded. The industry, already in a precarious situation before COVID-19, was devastated by the pandemic. Enrollment plummeted, forcing some providers to downsize and furlough staff. Those that stayed open dealt with the burden of protecting their staff and children.
In July 2020, about 17% of licensed child care providers in King County were closed, according to the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families. The closure of 359 providers accounted for 18,878 unavailable slots for preschool and school-age children. The agency doesn’t track enrollment figures.
A year later, many have not reopened.
An estimated 104 providers — 4,607 spots — are closed. The true count is likely larger as the DCYF’s numbers for child care spots available are from before the pandemic. Many providers that are still operating are struggling with staff burnout and costs that continue to limit capacity.
With Washington formally reopened, more parents are returning to work and a new in-person school year looms. They’re depending on strained providers and short-handed teachers like Walters. But options are limited. As child care providers struggle to get back on track, so will Washington’s families.
Working parents struggle
Amanda Walkingstick, an education advocate from Tacoma, couldn’t find a provider that would take both her 5–year–old son and 6–month–old daughter. She said she’s fortunate she can work from home to look after them. Sometimes, she takes her business calls standing outside.
“My back porch has windows in it, facing where the kids are,” Walkingstick explained. “So you can stand back there, have silence and still watch them.”
Waitlists are full at many facilities, including Launch’s summer site in Hawthorne Elementary School, where Walters works.
Sara Buckwitz, a supervisor and nurse at Neighborcare Health, dashes between clinical shifts from North Seattle to Rainier Beach. She wouldn’t be able to work, she said, if she couldn’t enroll her son Arthur at Launch.
“You always are making a choice between working and taking care of your child,” said Buckwitz, a single parent. “It’s a pretty rough spot to be in.”
Other parents had to improvise. Before finding Launch, Carmen Hernandez spent the school year helping run a child care pod that rotated between several families’ homes.
Her son Benicio’s kindergarten reopened for half days during the year but Hernandez, a home loan consultant, didn’t have a schedule flexible enough to pick him up and drop him off in the mornings. Creating a child care pod became the more feasible option. But it was far from easy.
“How do you support a kid who’s learning how to read and write?” Hernandez said. “I have no idea what I’m doing! I don’t do this for a living. Thank god for teachers.”
Staff face burnout
It wasn’t easy for teachers either. Between layoffs, low pay and understaffing, working through the pandemic took a toll on Washington’s child care workers.
At Launch, three of Walters’ colleagues left over the past year. Concerns about COVID-19 were stressful for some — Walters has asthma, and none of the children they work with are old enough to get vaccinated.
But Walters said what drove their co-workers to leave was not being able to give struggling children the individual care they needed in class.
“It was getting harder and harder to make the time as we lost more staff,” they said. “Some people were just like, ‘I can’t do this. I’m trying my very best every single day, and I just don’t have the energy to do this.’ ”
Some child care providers were forced to lay off or furlough staff as they reduced operations. The YMCA cut more than 1,000 positions after closing many sites due to capacity restrictions, according to spokesperson Alonda Williams. This summer, only 44 YMCA-run sites in King County are open, down from more than 100 before the pandemic.
Launch’s summer programming began two weeks ago. Executive Director Angela Griffin said the nonprofit wasn’t able to recruit enough staff to open all of its sites.