Oklahomans struggle to find daycare options | State

OKLAHOMA CITY — As state officials ratchet up pressure on Oklahomans to return to the workforce, some families are struggling to find child care in a post-pandemic world.

Oklahoma now has 200 fewer licensed child care facilities than in 2019, according to records obtained by CNHI News. Experts said the average Oklahoma child care facility is licensed to care for 7 to 10 children.

Others are on the brink of closing as officials say state coronavirus relief and subsidy payments have been slow to come from the Department of Human Services.

Child care providers, meanwhile, say the state’s pandemic daycare relief program has been inadequate, providing little direct relief for facilities, which already had single-digit profit margins. Facilities, particularly those in rural areas, also have struggled to afford basic necessities like bleach, cleaning supplies and diaper wipes as prices soared, student enrollment plummeted and fixed costs continued.

“There are many of us that wish that more was done, and believe that more could have been done,” said Rachel Proper, president of Oklahoma Child Care Association. “It’s just that child care wasn’t made a priority. A lot of us felt betrayed.”

Gus Blackwell, a lobbyist for the state’s Child Care Association, said they have been trying to raise the alarm about the consequences of losing so many facilities, but he said DHS did not seem concerned. Blackwell suspects an even greater number of daycares that still show as licensed will never reopen.

“You can’t just shut down for three or four months, pay insurance, rent, utilities and then just open back up,” Blackwell said. “Once you shut down, that’s pretty much it. You’re not going to open again.”

As the state prepares to end its federal unemployment benefit supplement program June 26 — months earlier than federal officials recommended — Proper said she fields calls daily from parents looking for child care.

She runs six Childtime centers in the Oklahoma City area that are licensed to serve 1,000 children, and said she has months-long wait lists across the board. The waits are longest for infants, toddlers and young children.

Despite the demand, Proper is operating at about 50% capacity right now because she can’t find enough staff.

When she attempts to hire staff, Proper said she’s now encountering DHS delays in processing mandatory criminal background screenings. She said it used to take DHS as little as 24 hours to run fingerprints through a federal background check, but now it’s taking anywhere between two to three weeks.

Because of the delays, DHS has told daycare operators that if it can’t process fingerprints within five days, they can put staff to work without screenings as long as they’re not left alone with children, Proper said.

“I believe it is a challenge to find care right now,” she said. “Because even if you have a facility in your area that is still open, chances are they don’t have enough staffing to meet all the needs in the community. And so I think finding child care right now is quite difficult. I anticipate what you’ll see is more parents, maybe dropping out of the workforce, particularly women.”

In an emailed statement, Oklahoma Department of Human Services said it is not hearing about extensive waits to get into licensed programs or that families are having trouble finding care.

The agency also noted that there’s been a national trend of child care closures for the past decade, but during Oklahoma’s pandemic most programs that were licensed and operable were able to remain open. They said about 120 closed from March 2020 through June 24, 2021, and for a variety of reasons.

That represented “only a 4% loss in the industry,” the agency said.

The other programs were either already inactive prior to the pandemic or submitted an application to be licensed but never opened.

The agency also said in February 2020, there were 1,680 licensed programs accepting low-income family subsidies. In May 2021, there were 1,682.

“Therefore, the pandemic did not have an effect on the number of providers serving low-income families,” the agency wrote.

DHS said it is maintaining 60 days of child care subsidies with no income limits for families searching for jobs due to COVID-19-related employment loss. For current subsidy families, the agency is covering all co-payments for child care and provides payments for in-home child care provided by relatives of eligible families. DHS also previously provided payments and staff stipends to help offset additional personnel costs or facility expenses, it said.

“The agency will soon be setting up a grant system and announcing additional initiatives to support providers utilizing American Rescue Plan funding,” the agency said.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Proper said DHS’ policies have allowed daycares to keep operating, but they’ve also prevented them from flourishing. The supports are slated to end in August.

“I don’t think the state realized the kind of support that we needed,” she said. “Hopefully the cavalry is coming and things will get better soon.”

Proper said the issue is complicated by the state’s subsidy program. Unlike public schools, child care facilities only get tuition reimbursement if a child is actually in the classroom.

When Proper had to shut down a school-age classroom during spring break because of a COVID-19 case, 40 children were affected for 10 days. The state cut off subsidy payments. About 80% of children in her daycares are subsidized.

“That’s been probably the hardest part of all this, is there were not supports in place to specifically help us with coronavirus expenditures and to support us when we needed to close for an exposure,” Proper said.

State Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, said his two toddlers were recently on a waiting list for six months to get into daycare. As they waited, his family relied on a patchwork solution involving a Mother’s Day Out program three days a week.

He said tuition costs rose to about $1,200 per child per month while he was waiting, perhaps due to the child- care scarcity in his south Oklahoma City area.

Dollens also said a lot of child care facility owners in his legislative district said they were forced to close during the pandemic because the state shut off their subsidies when children didn’t show up for school. In turn, the owners couldn’t pay their employees and had to close.

“I think that’s the main reason why so many went under,” he said.

Owners also complained to him on multiple occasions that DHS wasn’t paying subsidies on time.

Dollens said the state has done nothing to help private-pay child care centers, which don’t accept subsidies. He said that is a disservice to that daycare sector and those Oklahoma families.

Chad Warmington, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said access to child care is essential for those returning to work.

“As the economy reopens and expands, we are confident those facilities will come back as well,” he said. “As a parent myself, I know how difficult it was to get access to childcare before COVID. Oklahoma has worked diligently to address barriers to getting Oklahomans back in the workforce, and I am confident we will find a solution to this one.”

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