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California Child Care Spaces Have Been Disappearing For Years. The Pandemic Is Making It Even Harder To Survive

A classroom inside St. Mary's Richard Tufenkian Preschool in Glendale during its most recent closure. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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At the onset of the pandemic, researchers warned that half of California's child care slots could disappear permanently.

We wanted to know how close that prediction was to coming true almost a year later, so LAist requested the number of permanent and temporary closures, broken down by county, from the agency that licenses child care, the California Department of Social Services.

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As of Jan. 25, 3,122 California child care providers had reported permanent shutdowns.

Child care has been a precarious business in recent years. L.A. County and the state as a whole have consistently lost child care slots since 2014. So far, the number of permanent closures between March of 2020 and January 2021 hasn't exceeded the number of closures from the previous year.

But, says Chris Ringewald, the director of research and data analysis at Advancement Project California, "that's not getting at the full picture of the hardships for the field right now."

For example, more than 8,300 licensed child cares have temporarily closed at some point during the pandemic. It's still unclear how many will be able to stay in business.

"It really shows us that child care was struggling before the pandemic," said Keisha Nzewi, public policy director at the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. "The pandemic has really shone that bright light on the instability of our childcare system."


One of the schools that shuttered permanently was Fair Oaks Preschool in Pasadena.

The nonprofit's lease at a local church ended in June. Former director Elizabeth Brown said they looked at dozens of potential properties and took out two federal loans to stay afloat, but it ran out of money last October.

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"If you can't get children to enroll due to the fact that the families are scared, understandably, that revenue just isn't going to come in," Brown said.

For curriculum specialist Shireen Kassis Ciccone, the school's shutdown meant the loss of a job and child care for her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who still asks "When can I go back to school?"

"I'm kind of torn up," Ciccone said. "What do I do? We can't afford to put her in care."

The average cost of preschool in L.A. County is $10,303 a year. Perhaps more scarce than even affordable child care was the certainty that Fair Oaks gave the family.

"I felt like I didn't have to question too much... whether I was doing the right thing for her or not," Ciccone said.

Two custom-made puppets make guest appearances in St. Mary's Richard Tufenkian Preschool's online instruction. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Of the 34,000 child care providers that continue to operate during the pandemic, the majority are doing so at limited capacity- 99% of centers and 78% of home-based child caresreported to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment that they had fewer children enrolled than before the pandemic. In the same survey, 77% of open providers reported a loss of income.

St. Mary's Richard Tufenkian Preschool in Glendale is licensed for up to 200 kids, but currently only has about 110 students.

Public health guidelines limit the number of kids in each classroom. In L.A. County, the cap is 14 students.

Director Arsine Aghazarian had to furlough about two-thirds of the center's 30 remaining employees when the school closed during the most recent surge of coronavirus cases.

"We don't have really big reserves," Aghzarian said. "But it is meant to be for the rainy days and I guess this is really a storm coming in."

The school started a virtual Armenian education program for the first time, which attracted a few students from out of state. Parents have also adapted their fundraising to the pandemic. On "Worry-Free Wednesdays" families can buy take-home versions of the school's specialties like harissa and borscht. Other days there are "busy boxes" of kid-friendly crafts for sale.

Director Arsine Aghazrian talks to a parent during the weekly meal fundraiser that Tufenkian preschool organizes in their parking lot. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

"I think this helps us keep in touch, so that next year, hopefully, when school resumes we may be able to find some normalcy again," said mom and parent support committee co-chair Karineh Aboulian.

Still, overall revenue is down and the costs to operate are up. Aghazarian estimates the 45-year-old school can stay afloat for maybe six more months running this way.

"This year has been really servicing our community, trying to engage the families as much as possible into our program rather than moving away from us," she said.


Melissa Rodriguez and her family don't eat in their dining room. For the last 11 years, the space was a Lego construction zone, an art studio and a play area.

Rodriguez's Orange County home is a licensed child care for up to eight kids at time.

She stayed open throughout the pandemic, but attendance fluctuated, until there were no kids.

Some parents started working from home, others lost their jobs or couldn't afford to pay for child care anymore. So for now, Rodriguez is out of the child care business.

"I didn't get to make that decision. I didn't get to say 'I'm done, I'm burned out, I'm over it,'" she said. "The world said, 'OK, you're done. Good luck. Figure it out.'"

Melissa Rodriguez sits for a portrait in the packed-up play area of her Orange County family child care. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Family child care homes have accounted for the majority of Califronia's permanent child care closures in recent years- a 33% decline since 2008.

Family child care is often more affordable and flexible than center-based care. Rodriguez charged a flat rate of $46 a day for 7am to 5.30pm care.

Do the math for a full year and that's 25% lower than the average annual cost of infant and toddler care in Orange County, according to a recent report from the area's First 5 organization.

"I'm proud of what I built," Rodriguez. "I don't feel like parents should have to pay their entire paycheck to get good care for their kids."

Melissa Rodriguez still keeps the sign for her business in her front yard. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Child care advocates say the industry's survival depends on financial support from the government. Nationwide, they called for$50 billion to stabilize the industry. There's been $13.5 billion dedicated to child care between two federal coronavirus relief bills passed last year.

"We were already not covering the full cost of care before the crisis, the pandemic, and the costs have only gone up," said Vickie Ramos Harris, director of educational equity for Advancement Project California.

California has funneled $518 million into child care programs since the start of the pandemic. The largest chunk of money - $235 million - is paying for essential worker family child care.

Local jurisdictions, including the City of Los Angeles, L.A. County and Orange County created their own grant programs for providers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed budget includes $55 million for COVID-19 related child care support, and $500 million for expanding the state's transitional kindergarten programs.

At a Feb. 3 statewide meeting of the Early Childhood Policy Council,frustration about the budget spilled over in comments from providers and advocates.

"We've really been sharing what's needed now during this crisis as well as in the future," said San Diego child care center CEO Robin Layton. "This proposed budget does not reflect the need."

One long-standing issue is that California bases the rate it pays providers to care for children from low-income families and essential workers on data collected in 2016, despite the availability of more recent information.

"Our house is burning now. I mean, we are losing total infrastructure," said Denyne Micheletti Colburn, CEO of the California Alternative Payment Program Association.

California leaders are still working out how to spend close to $1 billion in federal money for child care included in December's coronavirus relief act.

Melissa Rodriguez has put many of the toys the children used away in a corner of her backyard. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The logistics of getting that money into the hands of providers presents its own challenges.

"If we create processes that make it difficult for these very overtaxed workers to go and do all the work they already do, and then do complicated application processes, we're not actually providing them the resources that they need," said Ramos Harris from Advancement Project California.

Throughout the pandemic, critical information about safety guidelines and funding opportunities have sometimes failed to reach every sector of the state's fractured early childhood system.

"I'm pretty sure I qualify for a few things," Rodriguez said."I just don't know how to get to any of it."

Rodriguez would like to reopen her child care, but doesn't know what the next step is.

"I feel like we have such an important job when people need us, like to care for their kids, but then we just get forgotten in the background," Rodriguez said.