Working parents say quality childcare among biggest hurdles of going back to the office

Working parents say quality childcare among biggest hurdles of going back to the office

CINCINNATI — Jessy Shelly was elated when she found the job.

After a more than year-long search, the 35-year-old Price Hill mom was offered a position at a manufacturing company in Westwood. The post was less than 10 minutes away from her home, but there was one major obstacle she needed to overcome.

“It was already difficult enough, trying to find childcare that met our needs, looking for something that was both diverse, inclusive, non-religious," Shelly said. "That was before the pandemic. And we still did not find something that suited us. Now, it's even more complicated.”

Shelly’s plight to secure adequate childcare for her daughter as she prepares to go back to work is a battle other locals are contending with as they re-emerge from the pandemic.

Simultaneously, childcare providers and schools are challenged in serving families reliant upon their care. These facilities are tasked with persistently making adjustments and innovations prompted by the strains and limitations of the pandemic.

Parents and childcare providers WCPO spoke with are determined to uplift children by offering them support and keeping them productive as adults transition back to work. Still, they recognize that this chapter of the pandemic continuously presents them with doubts and frustrations they have yet to face.

Shelly is disconcerted by the fact that children as young as her daughter are not able to get vaccinated for COVID yet. She is worried about the health of her child despite being relieved that she and her husband have received their shots can return to their workplaces.

Shelly hunted intensely for a spot in a childcare facility. She managed to look at a dozen providers over a few weeks and found that the competition was steep. Providers she has encountered have been taking in fewer children to allow for more space and facilitate safety precautions. Shelly applauds this reform. However, some of the providers are also operating overcapacity, as they have fewer staff members as a result of bringing in fewer children.

She questions whether childcare professionals will be able to offer her child the optimal care and enrichment she is looking for because their energy and attention are split by having to manage COVID precautions. She also questions just how accommodating her slated employer would be toward Shelly and her challenges in looking after her child’s welfare as she adjusted to her new role.

Shelly, her husband, and their daughter moved to Cincinnati three years ago. They do not have any other family in town, so there are no relatives nearby Shelly and her husband can rely on to help care for their child when they are out of the house. Finding a compatible childcare facility is necessary for Shelly to be able to go to work.

Shelly was prepared to go jobless if she couldn’t get her daughter into a childcare center that fit her standards.

“I'm so particular about my daughter's care that if I don't find something suitable in time, then I'll pass on that job," Shelly said. "And I'll look elsewhere.”

Childcare providers we spoke with in the Hamilton County area concede that they have been receiving an influx of calls from parents like Shelly since April.

Erica Sager, the executive school director of The Gardener School of Blue Ash, said she has also been receiving calls from employers looking for openings as a way to support their workers with children.

The Gardener School of Blue Ash has resumed pre-pandemic enrollment of about 200 children. Most of Sager's students have returned for summer programming, though she anticipates more openings for prospective students by the fall as the oldest children transition out of the school.

Sager commends her teachers for being flexible and taking on new responsibilities to meet families’ needs, saying that her school is not having bandwidth issues. However, her teachers have been working overtime, spending more time supervising children because their parents are going back into their offices.

“Some of them are getting here earlier and staying here a little bit later because, you know, they're not coming just from home," Sager said. "They're going from home to here to work now.”

Sager and her team note they are having trouble expanding their bandwidth as well, even though all of their classrooms are fully operating. The Gardener School, like several other childcare facilities in the area, has been struggling to hire qualified teachers. Despite having postings for four different jobs online, the business has only received two applications in the past two weeks. Sonnia Richards, the assistant director of the school, is unsure of why so few people are applying.

“At the beginning, after schools and stuff opened back up we were under the assumption that everybody was still worried working around children during COVID and everything,” Richards said. “But now that the vaccine has been available and everything the only other thing we can think of is that it might just be the other assistance that people are receiving right now and they’re not needing to work.”

Judy Leonard, the section chief of childcare at Hamilton County Job and Family Services, said the department has not received complaints from their consumers about facing barriers in finding childcare. The population the department serves are residents with low wages; those eligible for childcare are at 130% of poverty. That would equate to about less than $1,800 a month for a family of two. More pressing concerns they have been fielding from job applicants relate to whether they will be able to find work that will pay them enough to be able to afford childcare while they are out of the home. However, Leonard encourages those in need to take advantage of their services. She said enrolling in publicly funded childcare could give residents long-term support even as they transcend poverty.

“The clients that we serve, once they get onto publicly funded childcare, they very quickly establish themselves with either a home provider or a center where they can stay for long lengths of time,” Leonard said. “In childcare eligibility, you can grow your income up to 300% of poverty. So you can stay on for quite a long time.”

Noting the additional support needed by families and children this summer, Cincinnati Public Schools expanded its Summer Scholars program so that all students from the pre-school to grade 12 can participate. The program is facilitated at CPS schools through June and offers academic classes in the morning that include math, reading and writing. Afternoon sessions offer enrichment through the arts, sports and other extracurricular activities. The program previously was only offered for lower primary school students and was targeted to children with the direst academic needs.

Tammy Solomon-Gray, principal at Cheviot School and Gifted Academy West, said that the school district funded the program’s expansion with pandemic dollars from the federal government. She said, because many of her parents are essential workers who work at odd hours, a number of them refrained from enrolling their children into the program.

They had concerns about being able to consistently get their children to campus on time. However, Cheviot’s turnout for Summer Scholars this year was exceptionally high. Typically, only about 5% of the school’s population — about 625 in 2019 — sign up for the summer. This year, there were 123 children enrolled; that's about 25% of the current population.

Even though the program doesn’t run all summer long, Solomon-Gray said that continuing children’s education through the summer can have a significant impact in closing learning gaps. Closing these gaps is particularly important this year because of the classroom time that was lost at the start of the pandemic, as well as the teachings children often forget while away from school during summer vacation. The principal is committed to getting her students back on track.

“It's just going to take all of us parents, school employees, community members, school board," Solomon-Gray said. "It’s going to take all of us to help our kiddos to level up to where they should be. There's just been a loss because of this pandemic. But it's nothing we can't recover from if we all lean in together and keep our kids first."

In the end, Jessica Shelly found that making the decision wasn't as difficult as she expected. The opening for her job dissolved when her prospective employer decided to split her responsibilities with employees already working for the company. Losing the position meant she no longer urgently needs childcare and can continue to stay home with her child.

Shelly said the lost income will not be an issue, as it was only meant to supplement her husband’s income that is already taking care of her family’s needs. Still, she said more widespread childcare access is needed. In her words, that access would elevate their community.

“If we all have reliable childcare at the same time, it'll just sort of help the whole neighborhood flourish a little bit," Shelly said. "We've all been bouncing off of one another: ‘Can you watch on Tuesday? Can you watch on Thursday?’ And that has been great for the last year and a half. But work is getting more strict."

She thinks leaning on others for babysitting won’t be sustainable for the long term.

“People are requesting more in-person meetings and that needs to change,” Shelly said.

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

If there are stories about gentrification in the Greater Cincinnati area that you think we should cover, let us know. Send us your tips at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.