Darnita Lawrence is the kind of mom who likes to pop in and say hello to her toddler. For years, she could: Her 2 year-old son, and her 7-year-old daughter before him, went to day care at Southeast Children’s Fund, one floor up from her office. She could drop off a juice box at lunch time or spend a few minutes watching them nap.

“It was the best thing ever,” Lawrence said.

In Washington D.C., Southeast Children’s Fund — and Sunshine Early Learning Center, its sister school — are storied institutions. Sunshine opened in 1968, when founder Frances J. Rollins turned an old bowling alley into a day care. The organization expanded to two other locations, serving more children than any other child-care network east of the Anacostia river, one of the poorest areas in the city.

Lawrence couldn’t believe her luck. Living and working in Anacostia, where there are fewer child-care centers per capita than almost anywhere else in D.C., her situation sometimes felt too good to be true.

Then, suddenly, it was.

In September, six months into the pandemic, Lawrence got a call: Her branch was permanently closing its doors.

In September of 2020, the day-care center that was housed in the Anacostia's Salvation Army building closed.
In September of 2020, the day-care center that was housed in the Anacostia's Salvation Army building closed.

Day-care centers began closing almost as soon as the pandemic hit. Without kids in classrooms, they relied largely on government aid and contributions from parents. By the time relief funding from the Cares Act dried up in May, centers everywhere were struggling, said Rasheed A. Malik, a senior policy analyst for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank. While there’s no definitive data on how day-care centers have fared in the pandemic, Malik estimates that more than 20,000 facilities have closed permanently, based on a survey published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Tens of thousands more could close by the end of the year, he says.

The United States suffered from a chronic child care shortage long before the pandemic, with child care “deserts” dotted across the country, especially in low-income areas. As kids have stayed home this year, those deserts have grown, swallowing up many of the centers that, until now, had managed to defy the odds. The closures are a major problem for parents. Some are logging on from home, others have lost their jobs in the pandemic.

When they finally go back to work, where will they send their kids?

(Rasheed Malik, Won F. Lee, Elizabeth E. Davis, and Aaron Sojourner)
(Rasheed Malik, Won F. Lee, Elizabeth E. Davis, and Aaron Sojourner)

Most centers will struggle to bounce back when demand returns, permanently expanding child care deserts across the country, said Malik, who defines a “desert” as an area where there are three or more kids for every spot in a licensed child care center or in-home day care. To reopen, centers will have to find a new space, restart a lengthy certification process and try to hire back employees. If they reopen, it could take years.

Without accessible, affordable child care, Malik said, parents will keep their kids at home. Mothers and other female relatives will step in to fill the void. Nearly three million women have already left the labor force in the pandemic, many to care for children home from school or day care. Now women face a “downward spiral,” he said.

“They won’t have child care to get back into the workforce. And down and down we go.”

Before the pandemic, 56 kids spent their days at Lawrence’s branch of the Southeast Children’s Fund, with approximately 50 more on the waiting list. When the center closed, Lawrence “got lucky,” she said, securing a place for her son at a smaller center down the street. About half of the families sent their kids to a different branch of the organization. The other two locations — including Sunshine, the much larger flagship center — are both a seven-minute drive away, in the Washington Highlands neighborhood.

But soon those branches might have to close, too. Currently operating at 25 percent capacity, the centers are on “life support,” along with many others like them, said Kathy Hollowell-Makle, the executive director at the D.C. Association for the Education of Young Children. There used to be 16 staff members working in Sunshine’s infant and toddler wing. Now there are eight.

Latisha Ibraheem is a teacher at Sunshine Early Learning Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Latisha Ibraheem is a teacher at Sunshine Early Learning Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“You heard such good things about the other location,” said Latisha Ibraheem, a teacher at Sunshine in Washington Highlands, who calls herself one of the “last ones standing.” “You heard how great the staff was, how long they’d been there.”

“Is this one next?” Ibraheem asked. “I think about that every day.”

The music used to begin first thing in the morning. When you stepped into the lobby at Sunshine, you heard “pure joy,” Ibraheem said: One teacher would be leading a singalong while another fired up the CD player, welcoming the children with some jazz or Afrobeats. It wasn’t unusual to see people dancing before 8 a.m.

“You felt the children,” said Denise Rogers, the director of Sunshine’s Washington Highlands location. “The voices, the singing, even the cries — you could feel them in your bones when you walked through the door.”

Now the room is empty, except for a few administrators. You can hear the whir of the printer, the soft hum of the central heating unit.

“It’s so quiet,” said Rogers, pointing out the empty classrooms. “It doesn’t sound like children.”

Sunshine has always operated on a relatively tight budget, said Rogers, even with all three centers at full capacity before the pandemic. Relying almost entirely on the child care vouchers that parents obtain through the Department of Human Services, she said, Sunshine made enough money to cover staff salaries and other essentials.

Centers like Sunshine, in low-income neighborhoods, had been able to survive with a “broad base of demand,” said Malik. Child care centers are extraordinarily expensive to run. To comply with state regulations, they typically need to hire one teacher for every six to eight children older than 3, and one for every three or four infants and toddlers. There isn’t much room to save money. Child care providers — disproportionately women of color — are already some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

Denise Rogers is the director of Sunshine Early Learning Center. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Denise Rogers is the director of Sunshine Early Learning Center. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“The way most child care centers operate, they have to be close to full enrollment to make ends meet,” said Elizabeth Davis, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota who focuses on child care. “Generally, these centers don’t have a financial cushion.”

That might surprise many parents, especially those who are paying full price. Day care costs an average of $9,589 per year for a child under 4, according to New America’s Care Report. It’s pricier in big cities: In D.C., the average cost of care for an infant is more than $24,000.

But even those hefty price tags aren’t enough to fully offset the costs. In other high-income countries, child care is heavily subsidized, with parents responsible for only a small fraction of the total price. While states do offer limited subsidies to some low-income parents, the eligibility requirements are strict and the options are limited. Government-run programs, like Head Start and state-funded prekindergarten, focus mainly on kids older than 3, said Hollowell-Makle. Head Start’s program for infants and toddlers is far smaller than its division for older kids.

“Child care deserts are a symptom of a decades-long neglect of public investment,” said Malik.

Sunshine’s Washington Highlands branch closed on March 16, along with almost everything else in the city. When it opened again in August, only 10 percent of students returned. Many parents have lost their child care vouchers in the pandemic, Rogers said, as they’ve lost jobs and struggled to find new work. Others are wary of the coronavirus, choosing to keep their kids at home, or with a friend or relative, where they’ll be less exposed.

Many parents who have kept their kids at home still call the center, Rogers said: They’re not quite ready to send their children back, but want to make sure their kids will have a spot when the time comes. Rogers always assures them: “When you’re ready to come back, we’ll be here for you.”

Denise Rogers is the director of Sunshine Early Learning Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Denise Rogers is the director of Sunshine Early Learning Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The alternative is hard to think about. Sunshine is a “safe place” for the children who come here, said Ibraheem. Most of them live in the immediate area, a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in D.C. Inside the building, she said, you can hear gunshots and groups of people running. Police are often called to sit outside the building.

Rogers wonders what the kids are experiencing at home, she says: Are they safe? What are they eating? Are people talking to them? She can’t control any of that, she says. At least when they’re here, she says, she knows they’re okay.

If a center like Sunshine had to close, some parents, many of whom are single mothers, would stop going to work, said Hollowell-Makle. Others would be forced to leave their children somewhere they rather wouldn’t, she said — with a friend’s high-schooler, maybe, or a relative who can’t provide reliable care.

Rogers hopes it will never come to that. She has been sending staff out into the neighborhood, leaving Sunshine fliers on grocery store bulletin boards and in the subway.

“We want everyone to know we’re open,” she said. “We’re here.”

Estrellitas Montessori School has never had to advertise. Word spread about the family-run day care in D.C’s Sixteenth Street Heights neighborhood. In January 2020, the school was at full capacity with 97 students enrolled.

There were 100 families on the waiting list.

Marilyn Medrano started Estrellitas in 2013 when she couldn’t find bilingual English and Spanish child care for her children. Since then, Estrellitas has become one of the hottest tickets in D.C. day care. While there are plenty of other options in the area, parents still add their kids to the list as soon they find out they are pregnant, knowing there’s next to no chance they’ll get in.

Estrellitas is approximately 85 percent White, according to Medrano. Many students come from nearby Petworth, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood just south of the school. Almost everyone pays out of pocket.

When the coronavirus hit, Estrellitas shut down. Medrano worried they might have to close permanently: With kids at home, not paying tuition, she wondered, how could she continue to pay her staff?

But then, a small group of parents reached out in late March, urging Medrano to ask for the money she needed.

Estrellitas received $80,000 from parents in April, enough to help Medrano pay her employees. The majority of parents agreed to pay at least 80 percent of their tuition — between $1,780 and $2,150 per month, depending on their child’s age — until the school reopened, said Abigail Rybnicek, a parent who helped solicit parent contributions. Many continued to pay for care they weren’t using even after the school reopened in June to ensure their child’s spot when they felt ready to return. Some parents offered to pay even more than they had before the pandemic.

“There is so much these teachers do for us,” said Rybnicek. “As a parent, I felt like the very least we could do is make sure they’re not without a salary.”

Rybnicek was proud, but not surprised, to see so much support for Estrellitas.

“Given the demographics, I think we knew that families would step up.”

This kind of “privilege dependence” is rampant in American education, said Jess Calarco, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Public schools have better results in wealthier areas because they rely on local tax dollars and cash from parent associations, she said: If students don’t have something they need, parents will pay for it. The dynamic is even more pronounced at private child-care centers, which rely entirely on parents for funding, Calarco said.

Almost a year into the pandemic, many child care centers have scraped by on charity. Their success hinges on the financial welfare of the parents they serve, Calarco said. In wealthy areas, where parents are more likely to have kept their jobs and transitioned to remote work, centers will survive; in poorer areas, they might not.

“It will be affluent White women who continue to have access to care, and disproportionately low-income women of color who don’t have access to the care they need,” Calarco said.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Estrellitas is operating at full capacity. Their enrollment never dwindled: When a family decided to stop paying tuition, Medrano says, there was a family eager to take their spot. Medrano expanded the space in the fall, paying rent for an additional four classrooms so the school could comply with social distancing requirements. Their waiting list is now even longer than it was before the pandemic, with 130 families hoping for a spot.

Medrano received a Paycheck Protection Program loan in late April, she said, which helped offset some of her costs. But that government relief was not nearly enough to sustain her school.

Without support from the parents, she said, "I would have had to close my doors.”

May 7.

That’s the date Rogers, the Sunshine director, has in her head. By May 7, she’s decided, the classrooms will be full. There will be children playing hide and seek in the hallway and skipping to the bathroom. The billboard will bloom again with crayon landscapes and glitter glue.

Children will swarm around a strawberry shortcake, Rogers said, because May 7 is her birthday.

Once widespread vaccine distribution allows the United States to return to some semblance of normality, Malik says, employers, parents and lawmakers will have a brief window of time to get it right. Businesses need to quickly rehire everyone they laid off in the pandemic. As soon as those parents return to work, along with parents who have been working from home, he said, they need to put their kids back in day care. At the same time, he said, the government needs to pour money into child care centers.

“If you miss that window, my worry is that there will be increased long-term unemployment for these women,” Malik said. Economic recovery will be “interrupted,” he added, because parents have nowhere to send their kids.

Sunshine Early Learning Center operates in the Congress Heights section of the city in Ward 8. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Sunshine Early Learning Center operates in the Congress Heights section of the city in Ward 8. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

For now, Rogers is taking it one week at a time.

“I always say to myself: ‘This week I’m going to enroll three children,’” she said. She calls up parents from the pre-pandemic roster, hoping this is the week they’ll agree to send their kids back.

Rogers is feeling good about May 7. It sounds like a date when things could be mostly back to normal, she said. At first she thought November, then January, then February, when D.C. public schools started offering in-person slots to students.

“I say May," she said. “May is on my mind.”

She can’t be sure they will make it to June.

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