Part one in a four-part series.
On March 13, Cheasty Anderson sat in the conference room at her office. She and her colleagues at the Children's Defense Fund were grappling with the sudden mandate to work from home.
Daily life was about to become unrecognizable in many ways, and one of Anderson's biggest challenges began that day.
"We were in the meeting room and my kids were in my office," she said. "I had nowhere else to put them."
Her 6- and 7-year olds were with her because the Austin Independent School District had abruptly canceled school as the threat of COVID-19 became real. Soon, the city would order everyone to shelter in place, and she and her husband would be asking: What do we do with the kids?
The couple has been working from home, so they've had to juggle jobs with virtual learning and taking care of their daughters; how they do that has shifted every day since spring.
The question of how to care for children during the pandemic isn’t just a headache for parents or caregivers; it’s a major issue for the Texas economy. School buildings and some child care centers are closed, meaning parents have few places to send their kids. And many of the centers that are open are taking care of fewer children, because families are nervous about sending their kids back or centers are limiting capacity. Both of these scenarios have serious consequences for the state’s economy.
One factor that troubles David Feigen, a policy associate for Texans Care for Children, is how child care centers are staying in business through the pandemic.
"The picture changes every day, but I’ll say the last I heard, we had 30% of Texas child care providers closed,” he said. "Many, many more are on the verge. Many of those providers may never reopen."
Mainspring School, a nonprofit child care center that serves children up to age 5, has been closed since March. The center's director, Jason Gindele, says he’s aware of how crucial his center is to the mostly low-income families it serves.
"We’re cognizant of the fact that there's pressure on them to return to work – both for their own personal, basic needs and by their employers," he said.
The high infection rates and hospitalizations of COVID-19 in Austin this summer made him wary of re-opening. He says he will reopen Sept. 8, now that the risk level in Austin has dropped.
Gindele says the center has been able to stay afloat financially; it has a healthy savings account and has been able to pay staff through a $230,000 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program and local grants.
He expects only 50-75% of the children to come back when the center reopens, but says he'll have to stay fully staffed in case someone gets sick and needs to quarantine.
“That creates an upside-down financial situation for us,” Gindele said. “We are suddenly underenrolled, so our income will be down.”
Open Door Preschool reduced enrollment when it reopened some of its facilities in April, hoping fewer children would mean less exposure to COVID-19. It has a waitlist of families wanting to come back.
Fewer clients means the preschool is bringing in less money, despite staying fully staffed and spending more on cleaning supplies. LaTrice Jones, assistant director of Open Door Preschool East, said she feels sad for the families who need help and the socialization the kids are missing out on.
"A lot of our families live within our community, so we're apt to see them going to H-E-B to buy snacks or walking to the park while we’re driving to work," she said. "It’s hard because you know that family needs care and you know why that family needs care."
Feigen says many child care providers are facing this financial struggle to stay open, and if more end up closing, it will hurt long-term efforts to get the economy back on track. Even if furloughs end and businesses start re-hiring, parents can't go back to work if there’s no child care. He said the only way to ensure child care is around long term is for federal and state governments to help out.
The city has already distributed $900,000 in loans and grants to day care centers to help keep them afloat. Earlier this month, Stephanie Hayden, the director of Austin Public Health, sent a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council asking the city to provide another $15 million in grants.
Without this kind of support, Feigen says, parents with limited options for child care will just stop working – which also hurts the economy.
“How many parents are just gonna decide they’re better off quitting their job and not returning to the workforce because they can’t afford to send their children [to a child care center] or they’re afraid to?” he said.
That's exactly where Anderson finds herself.
The last five months have been difficult. At the beginning of the pandemic, she and her husband, who works in business development, decided she would be the one mostly responsible for the kids during the day.
“When one person earns a lot more than the other person does, you make these decisions,” Anderson said. “If one of us is going to lose our job, if one of us is going to struggle with their job, it’s not going to be the person who can support us on his own.”
With limited time to devote to her advocacy work, Anderson was forced to ask for a short leave of absence to help her daughters stay on track when school starts. While her employer has been supportive, she worries about unintended consequences.
“My position is grant-funded, we’re a nonprofit, and so there are deliverables we have to do. So if we don’t do the things we’ve promised to do as a condition of these grants that we’ve been given, are the grants renewed the next year?" she said. "Do I take a leave that I’m legally entitled to, but then end up without a job at the end of the year?”
Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.