EL PASO COUNTY — The child care shortage in El Paso County has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as News5 learned, it has not been as damaging as experts originally predicted.
The Alliance for Kids is the Early Childhood Council for El Paso County, meaning it's a legislatively mandated group dedicated to supporting families and bringing state resources to local child care centers. The Alliance for Kids has been involved with ensuring there is adequate child care throughout the pandemic, and that centers remain open during despite the new challenges. "Prior to COVID-19, we already were in a place of not having adequate child care, especially when you look at the infant, toddler child care that's needed. So, what that causes families to do is to select programs that are unlicensed," said Kelly Hurtado, the program manager of the Alliance for Kids.
Hurtado said some local child care centers are fully enrolled, while others are experiencing unstable enrollment. She said programs are still having to make the tough decision of shutting their doors, and are not completely out of the woods just yet. However, we are doing better than expected. "Early figures estimated that we could lose up to 50% of our child care. And we haven't, that's the good news. We've only lost about 7%. 7% is around 300 slots for children, however," said Hurtado.
In the month of May, the Alliance for Kids conducted a survey of around 2,000 families with children under the age of five. They were looking for information on what their child care needs would be this fall. According to Hurtado, around 80% of families said they would definitely or probably need child care.
In that same survey, 47% said without adequate child care, they would not be able to return to the workforce. "We were shocked by that number," said Hurtado.
Hurtado also said the Alliance for Kids has a family support phone line, where families can call for help navigating child care resources. She said through this service, they have learned that when families are faced with either not having access to child care or the ability to afford it, women often drop out of the workforce first. She said this is mostly an economic decision that forces a spouse out of the workforce and into child care.
When asked what the biggest takeaway learned through the pandemic about child care is, Hurtado said it needs to be seen as a public good. She said it is essential and foundational, and conversations about child care should be a part of decision-making regarding the economic recovery. "Make sure that local leaders understand that child care is part of our economic success," said Hurtado.
Mallory Cullen was born and raised in Fountain. She and her husband now have one four year old son, and are expecting another child soon.
Not only is Cullen living through a pandemic while pregnant, she also works full time. Her son was in preschool for around three hours a day at the start of the year, but that facility closed when the virus hit Colorado. "They reopened in September. There was a big gap where there just wasn't that option available. So, you go from at least a little bit of help, to no options at all," said Cullen.
Cullen and her husband continued working throughout the pandemic, but she explained some of the choices that parents in a similar position have also faced. "You're having to choose, I mean really, whether or not someone can stay home. Or you don't have a choice, someone has to stay home, you cannot work as much as you were... There is no balancing. It's choosing day to day, week to week, and hoping that your employer or your environment is supportive of that and flexible enough to be able to handle that... It presents life choices that you hope to not really have to make," said Cullen.
She also said even if some child care centers do have positions open, perhaps a family does not have the income stream to afford the options they may have had before the virus.
"You're not alone. Everybody is dealing with some sort of struggle, especially if you have children, and young children," said Cullen.
The Center Director for Little Sprouts Learning Center, Sarah Brown, has been with the company since 2014. This center has stayed open throughout the pandemic, and has had no positive cases of COVID-19.
Brown said they have seen a fluctuation in their enrollment rates. The older classrooms have had an increase in demand, while some of the younger age groups have experienced a decrease. "We have spots open in our infant classrooms, which is very rare for this time of year," said Brown, adding that normally those classrooms have a waitlist ranging from four to six months.
She said the pandemic has exacerbated the issues surrounding child care in El Paso County. "We are aware that some child cares have had struggles during this pandemic, and some have had to close their doors permanently, which leaves more limited resources for families to look for child care and for centers to be able to offer child care," said Brown.
Little Sprouts Learning Center did hit very low enrollment numbers at the start of the pandemic, which resulted in them laying off some employees for a short time until they had access to loans. The center brought almost everybody back within three or four weeks, "but we did have some staff that have little ones at home, and it really made more sense for them to stay home and face those challenges in their home environment, rather than returning back to the workforce," said Brown.
Nationally, over 800,000 women left the workforce in the month of September alone. If you or anyone you know is in this position, reach out to Colette.Bordelon@koaa.com.