| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE – Leah Kavanaugh studied art in college, but made child care her career. She relishes building relationships with kids and families and feeling like she’s a part of a community.”What other job can you walk in the door and children yell your name, run up to you and give you a giant hug? There’s so much joy,” said Kavanaugh, a lead toddler teacher at the Children’s Learning Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It’s a warm, feel-good kind of job to have. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”But the coronavirus pandemic forced Kavanaugh to leave the job she loves.It’s because she can’t find child care for her own children, Lincoln, a second grader, and, Neil, a kindergartner, who are home all day because their school is entirely online now.Her husband, Andy, a high school English teacher, must return to work after taking a leave of absence to care for the kids. They don’t have family nearby to help out, and the couple can’t afford to send the children to another child care center or provider.Countless women across Wisconsin have found themselves in Kavanaugh’s predicament, being forced to choose between work and family.With more kids learning at home either full or part time this school year, more families are looking for child care at a time when an already critical shortage of child care has grown worse. Providers are reducing capacity and, as their financial struggles mount, up to one-third in Wisconsin could shut down.Child care decisions changedUnder normal circumstances, parents of young children run the child care numbers every year to decide what works financially. Sometimes, it makes the most sense for a parent to drop out of the workforce and not pay for child care.The coronavirus changed that equation. The difficult choices women like Kavanaugh are facing, are just one facet of the disproportionate toll the economic downturn has taken on women during what has come to be called the “shecession.”In September, a National Women’s Law Center analysis found that four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force in September.”Usually, it’s the woman,” said Emilie Amundson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.”That’s the piece of it that COVID has really exposed – the toll on the working women to have to grapple with this and figure out what the lack of available, safe, quality child care means for my career.”Job losses slams providers The thousands of pandemic-related job losses have taken a toll on child care providers. “Most of my parents are single women,” said Keyuante Sholar, the director of Kids Are Smart II in Milwaukee. “They are single parents. Once mom loses her job, there isn’t anyone there to back her up. She has to figure it out.”Around 30 children used to come to Kids Are Smart II on any given day. Recently, it’s been about 10, Sholar said. Part of that drop is a result of social distancing requirements. But a parent’s lost job is the top reason kids aren’t returning to day care, Sholar said. For families that can’t afford or find child care, that means someone has to stay home with the kids – especially the younger ones, who can’t be left home alone and are unable to navigate online learning without help.It’s exacerbating a long-standing problem in Wisconsin: Families already were challenged to find quality, affordable child care before the pandemic.Half of Wisconsin ZIP codes are defined by the state Department of Children and Families as child care deserts – areas with an insufficient supply of licensed child care providers. The problem is particularly acute in Wisconsin’s rural counties, where 70% of ZIP codes are child care deserts.And then, there’s the cost.Child care is expensive for both parents and providers, who have always operated on thin margins.The average cost of child care in was $9,072 per child in Wisconsin in 2019, according to a report from the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. That’s roughly the cost of in-state tuition and fees at the University of Wisconsin.Reduced capacities add pressureProviders try to stay at peak capacity to stay profitable. Under normal circumstances, that’s not a problem.Tammy Dannhoff provides in-home child care and early education from her Oshkosh home. She estimates she receives two inquiries a week from current and expecting parents through email or her Facebook page.Dannhoff is rarely able to help them.In her newsletter, she includes a “baby check spot,” where she alerts families of future openings for infants. Almost immediately, parents trying to conceive in October 2019 snatched a spot she announced would be open in 2021. The pandemic has only made it worse. Dannhoff has been getting three or four inquiries per week from parents desperate to find care as they return to work. She knows many other providers are in the same boat.”I feel bad for the (parents) – child care is so hard to find,” Dannhoff said.And it’s even more difficult to find in the midst of a pandemic that has led some centers to voluntarily operate at reduced capacity to encourage social distancing.Some in-home providers, too, have opted to limit the number of children in their care despite the sizable hit to their income.On average, a National Association for the Education of Young Children survey found enrollment at Wisconsin providers is about half of what it was before the pandemic.But what is most concerning: The survey revealed that 1 out of every 3 child care programs in Wisconsin said the facility would have to close without additional public assistance to help make ends meet.Congress’ $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill includes $10 billion in relief for the child care industry, the bulk of which will go toward grants for child care providers for payroll, cleaning supplies and fixed costs like rent.However, child care advocates say it’s not enough.Providers’ struggles become acuteThe child care workforce has always been resilient, said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association. It’s had to be – a provider or teacher must really love kids to pursue a career in the profession.But the pandemic is pushing many to a breaking point.According to a 2018 Center for American Progress study, the median hourly wage for Wisconsin child care workers is $10.03, and for preschool teachers, it’s $11.64.The child care workforce is almost entirely women, about half of whom have an associate degree or more education, according to a 2016 Wisconsin Early Childhood Association workforce study.”They are women who have been working at poverty-level wages for a really long time and they’re gritty and have incredible resilience,” Schmidt said. “But at some point, the system breaks when you can’t even bring in enough revenue to pay your staff $10 an hour.””It’s simply unsustainable, and the pandemic has only made that worse.” For months, Nicole Leitermann has worried that she would have to close the in-home child care business she started over two decades ago.Since the pandemic hit Wisconsin, Leitermann often found herself lying awake at night, thinking about what else she could do for a living if she couldn’t make ends meet.In early spring, before the state’s Safer at Home order went into effect, she had seven children enrolled. But as businesses closed and parents worked from home or were laid off and trying to cut costs, that number dropped to just two. She feared what would happen if the number of children in her care dwindled to none.”I’ve done this for 22 years and honestly that was the first time that I really had to think about what else I could do if I couldn’t do this anymore,” Leitermann said through tears. “It was so hard.”While she made it past that hurdle – Leitermann now has six children enrolled, and another two babies coming soon – her fears linger.What will happen if her home becomes the start of an outbreak? What if all of her children are out of her care for weeks on end because they must quarantine or are sick themselves?Dannhoff, too, worried that COVID-19 would rip her 32-year-old business away from her for good.Dannhoff is licensed to care for eight children, but after the Safer At Home order, her enrollment dropped “drastically.” At one point, she had just two children attending full time and two others coming on only a part-time basis and was down nearly $5,000 per month – about 80% of her income.Absences continued: One family had to pull out for three weeks after being exposed to COVID-19. In early November, Dannhoff said, another family was out while quarantining as close contacts to a case.Eventually, Dannhoff and her husband came up with an enrollment maintenance program in which parents pay half of their weekly tuition during the absence, to cushion the blow to Dannhoff without overburdening the families.”It’s a struggle both ways, for the families and also for myself,” Dannhoff said. “We thought this would be a good compromise.” It was a big help to Jen Riha, whose 4-year-old daughter Kendra has received care from Dannhoff for two years.Already, mothering three kids – 16-year-old Thomas, 10-year-old Ariana and Kendra – and having a full-time job as a laminator operator was hard to juggle.Add in a pandemic, which caused her husband, Jeramie, to be laid off for a couple of months and her children’s schools to close, and it’s even more of a struggle. Being able to pay a reduced rate meant a lot to the Rihas.”She didn’t have to do that but she did anyway,” Riha said of Dannhoff’s enrollment maintenance program. “It was very heartfelt and kind of her.” Dannhoff has had a tough year. She hasn’t been able to contribute to her retirement fund. She and her husband put off planned renovations to their home and trips.Now, she worries about winter. Dannhoff and her husband still wake up every morning and immediately ask themselves: “Can I smell? Can I taste?” When a parent calls Dannhoff, she worries that one of the eight children she cares for has been exposed to the virus and she might be forced to shut down indefinitely.”It’s always in the back of my mind,” she said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”Operating in a pandemic comes with added responsibilitiesThe drop in enrollment and profit comes as providers are paying more for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.Both Leitermann and Dannhoff received grants from the state to account for the additional costs.Leitermann also got a personal protective equipment loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., but she dreads paying more in taxes next year because of that income. Leitermann estimates she spends more than 15 hours a week cleaning her home, and she struggles to find the supplies she needs as other businesses and families stockpiled.”You don’t want it to be your fault that someone got sick,” Leitermann said. “Some of these kids, my house is the only place that they’re going. You’ve just got to look out for them. But it’s adding on to an already long workday.” Child care staffing: Another example of the ‘shecession’ at workAfter the pandemic closed the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Children’s Learning Center for five months, Kira Hartley felt lucky to be back to work. She’s the center’s toddler program coordinator.But the challenges and curveballs have kept coming since reopening in August.Under normal circumstances, Kavanaugh and another teacher were able to bring their children to the center for after school care. Now, with the center operating at half its capacity, there’s not enough space for them.Unable to find affordable child care elsewhere, both teachers are taking leaves of absence.”We already struggle to recruit teachers and we’re losing two more,” Hartley said in November. “There are so many stories of this … The issue has always been there, COVID has only exacerbated it.” Piecing together jobs, leaves of absencesKavanaugh is grateful that her family has been able to make it all work so far.While Kavanaugh was furloughed during the five months the UWM center was closed, she cared for her children and collected unemployment. After she returned to work, her husband Andy took a leave to care for the kids.Now, it’s her turn to step away from her job. “I feel guilty,” she said. “I work in this wonderful community, I love my colleagues, I love my kids. I’ve been here as a lead teacher for 12 or 13 years, and I have relationships with my co-workers and families who rely on us. It feels really crummy to leave.” Hartley says it shouldn’t be this way. She believes early childhood education should be funded as K-12 public schools are, and society should recognize the programming to be just as – if not more – important to a child’s well-being.”The pandemic has really highlighted the child care crisis,” she said. “In a selfish way, I appreciate it.”Samantha West can be reached at 920-996-7207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @BySamanthaWest. Sarah Hauer can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter Be MKE at jsonline.com/bemke.