Families Scramble for Childcare Amid Staff Shortages, Declining Funding and 4-Day School Weeks

Amid schools adopting four-day weeks, families will have to search for childcare or be able to provide it during children's days off.
Amid schools adopting four-day weeks, families will have to search for childcare or be able to provide it during children's days off. Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
Used to be, the concern and debate was over whether families could find quality childcare.

Now, it seems the focus is on finding any childcare at all. Facilities are short-staffed making an already low-paying job even less desirable. With the approaching end of the Child Care Relief Fund instituted during the pandemic by the Texas Workforce Commission — a fund that committed about $4 billion in federal money to childcare — daycares will be even more cash-strapped.

And adding to all of this – the move by an increasing number of school districts to go to a four-day week in an attempt to recruit more teachers. Except, of course and academic fears aside, where do these kids go on the fifth day if they have working parents – including teachers with children?

One alternative is at-home nanny care, but it often comes at a higher cost making it something many families can’t afford.

“I think it will be a really damaging thing for families,” said Dr. Cynthia Osborne, executive director of the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center, a research center at Vanderbilt University. “They are going to have to figure out a way to cover the costs and it’ll be expensive at a time when they are already unable to find providers to care for their children.”

So far, 59 Texas school districts have switched to four-day weeks and another seven announced they would function on hybrid schedules which include these shortened weeks, for part of the year.

At the end of last month, Crosby ISD became the largest district – servicing about 6,500 families – in the state and the only one in Harris County to adopt this change.

According to Osborne, to offset the need for parents to hire childcare during these off-days, schools could consider providing additional after-school care.

“It’s quite possible that the programs at these schools offering after-school care may offer full day-care on those days, but it still means the cost will be passed on directly to the parents,” Osborne said.

However, these at-school programs may not have the ability to handle the capacity of additional children coming in for full-day services, Osborne said.

Out-of-school childcare centers also may be unable to cater to this influx of children given the issues they are already facing, “These facilities are not able to open up capacity,” Osborne said. “There are centers with rooms that are sitting empty because they can’t get a provider to offer care to those kids.
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Childcare centers are struggling with an increase in the number of children looking for placements at the same time as many low-paid workers have opted for other jobs.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
The Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center conducted a series of studies published late last month that found these facilities understaffed as a result of being unable to raise the costs of their services.

Increasing the cost of care – which would allow for higher wages for providers – would make it that much harder for parents to invest in daycare services.

“To be able to access any kind of quality care, families are paying at least $1,000 a month per child and that’s higher than most families are paying in rent or mortgages,” Osborne said.

This is also an issue in nanny-care, as nanny agencies – organizations that place nannies with families – found more dual-income homes that used to be able to pay for nannies, now unable to do so, said Michelle LaRowe, executive director of Morningside Nannies, a local nanny agency.

Nanny services tend to be more expensive because they provide individualized at-home care and require parents to cover what would be employer expenses.

"We are having to educate families about the cost of nanny care, they don't realize that this is not the same cost of daycare; you don't just write a check or pay for it," LaRowe said. "You have employer responsibilities, which includes paying a portion of employer taxes, withholding taxes from the nanny's pay and out-of-pocket costs for Medicare."

However, nannying can be more cost effective than daycare if a family has more than one child, as parents are only having to pay one provider and not for multiple spots at their local daycare, LaRowe said.

Additionally, more families are seeking nannying services post-pandemic, as they are unsure of returning their children to group settings.

But similar to childcare facilities, nanny agencies are seeing a decrease in the number of new nannies and returning nannies — which has led to more job vacancies than nannies available to fill them.

According to LaRowe this is because during the pandemic when job availability was low, some nannies picked up temporary jobs, like Uber Eats or DoorDash. They earned more money, while also setting their own schedules.

Now, those who have returned to nannying are asking for higher wages, some starting at $30 an hour or more, but many families are unwilling or unable to pay that.

As for daycares, the low hourly wages – $12 to $14 or roughly $24,000 annually – leave little incentive for workers to join or stay in this line of work, Osborne said.

This inability to hire or retain current providers is one of the largest issues these facilities are facing today, as over 97 percent are unable to find the workforce needed to keep up with families’ requests, according to the Prenatal-3-Policy center’s report.

Home-based childcare centers are affected by this issue at a higher rate, as they are often the only source of childcare in smaller towns and rural communities, Osborne said.

These smaller facilities tend to be owned, operated and managed by a single or small team of providers. To assist these single-person and smaller staffs, there are programs like the Shared Service Alliance. This non-profit program connects childcare centers with resources for accounting, purchasing and other operational needs. However, Osborne said more could be done for these providers that still require additional assistance.

“They are really picking up the slack in the system and providing an arrangement that a lot of families – especially with younger children – prefer,” Osborne said. “We have to make sure that these providers are able to give the high-quality care that they do, while also having access to what they need.”

The center found that more state funding and federal dollars need to be invested in initiatives that provide stipends to incentivize current providers, increase subsidy rates to reflect the true cost of childcare and distribute larger amounts in more subsidies made available to more families.

“The only solution for this very public problem has to be public investment,” Osborne said.

As Child Care Relief draws to a close, an extension was made at the end of last year to the Child Care and Development Fund – a separate fund also established by the Texas Workforce Commission under the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

This addition provides roughly $892 million for the 2023-2024 fiscal year to put toward support for families with low income or little access to assistance to obtain affordable childcare arrangements, according to The Center for Law and Social Policy, a non-profit organization advocating for policy solutions for lower income individuals.

Although this allotment could be a permanent increase and provide some relief in the wake of the last round of 2022 Child Care Relief Fund payments in the coming months; there is a chance that this increase would only be temporary, Osborne said.

“You can think of the funding in one big pot right now, it’s like getting a bonus check at the end of the year that you can’t rely on coming to you next year,” Osborne said.

According to Osborne, if Texas does not find a way to provide even more state dollars and federal funds for additional initiatives, facilities, providers and parents will continue struggling to make ends meet.

And with the potential for more children needing care if school districts continue to opt for four-day school weeks, parents will have no choice but to invest additional dollars into childcare services or choose which parent will become the de facto childcare provider, Osborne said.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.