See below for the Sonoma Index Tribune's article on the pandemic's impact on preschools and child care.
Local author and mother Jennifer Churchill and her son's father Kenta Gilmore stand behind their son Weston, 7. When the pandemic hit and childcare became scarce, Gilmore quit his job and took over Weston's schooling and care during the day while Churchill worked. Churchill and Gilmore do not live together but worked together to create a strategy for Weston's care. (Photo: Jennifer Churchill)
By JANET PERRY
June 17, 2021
The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the struggle of local parents to find adequate, affordable child care.
As preschools and day care centers closed down under COVID, parents scrambled to find ways to keep working while they cared for their children and oversaw their education.
Many families found there wasn’t enough child care before the pandemic. After COVID hit, the situation became dire.
In 2019, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) undertook a study of the preschool landscape of Sonoma Valley. It looked at the availability of care for children ages 3 to 5 in centers and family child care homes. The study concluded there was a gap, particularly in subsidized care for families that couldn't afford tuition-based programs.
The foundation launched a second study in 2020 to find a way to narrow the gap in care and begin to coordinate early childhood education services in Sonoma Valley. Although finalized in the summer of 2020, the study needed to be updated to reflect the impacts of the COVID pandemic. The education foundation is also now analyzing the availability of child care for infants and toddlers.
“Over the past few years we've gained a tremendous amount of insight into the scarcity of care options for children 5 and under in Sonoma Valley, in particular the lack of affordable care options for those families that have been historically underserved,” SVEF Executive Director Angela Ryan told the Index-Tribune.
Ryan estimates there are 2,500 children 5 and under living in Sonoma Valley. “For center-based care, like preschools, there were 21 operating before COVID, now there are nine operating,” she said. “Those 21 centers previously had the capacity to serve 1,124 students; now the remaining nine are able to serve 341 students, a 70 percent decrease in available capacity.”
Of the 12 licensed homebased childcare center operating prior to the pandemic, only six are still active, said Ryan.
“Those 12 homes previously had the capacity to serve 138 children; now the remaining six are able to serve 66 children, a 52 percent decrease in available capacity.”
Ryan said that of the centers that are closed, 12 are inactive, one is permanently closed, and one new one actually opened in the past year. Three of the licensed family child care homes are inactive and three are permanently closed. Available data focuses on licensed centers and family child care homes; information about more informal family, friend or neighbor settings for infants, toddlers and preschoolers wasn’t captured.
“The picture painted by the official data paints a pretty bleak picture,” Ryan said. “With 2,500 children 0 to 5 in Sonoma, there are currently spaces for about one of every six kids. And that doesn't include the added dimension of affordability.” She said the breakdown is about 50/50 between subsidized and tuition-based programs.
El Verano, Sassarini and Prestwood elementary schools host subsidized preschools that serve many low-income families.
The Sassarini preschool is fully funded by SVEF, but it only runs for four hours a day, which makes it an imperfect option for working parents.
Sassarini Preschool Director Lisa Bell agreed childcare and preschool are very hard to come by and it’s even harder since the pandemic hit. Her program is designed to be a one-year program prior to kindergarten.
“And we’re already full for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year,” said Bell.
El Verano Preschool is funded by the state with help from SVEF and serves children aged 3 to 5 in two half-day programs.
“It has been an unforgettable year because we had to do virtual learning for the preschool program when we were closed,” said director Sonya Valiente. El Verano is still taking applications for the fall, but she was unsure if there are currently any openings.
Private preschools and daycare centers
Sonoma’s Sunshine School, run by Director Mary O’Hern on Patten Street, closed in March of last year and was unable to reopen until August of 2020.
“We were able to obtain a couple of PPP loans and a couple of private grants,” said O’Hern. “We pulled from our school reserves to get through.”
Sunshine serves children between 2 and 6 years of age. Pre-pandemic, enrollment was 65 to 70 children. In August, it took in 27 children and currently can accommodate 40. The preschool is taking names for a waiting list for next year.
Valley of the Moon Nursery School at 136 Mission Terrace is anotherprivate local option that serves children ages 3 and 4.
“We were able to stay afloat and keep doors open solely on the fact that we got the PPP loan and five grants,” said Director Amy Gallagher. “We would not have made it without these.” Valley of the Moon is already full for the fall but a waiting list is available.
Calls to the local daycare centers found only one serving children as young as 12 months: Eighth Street Montessori School of Sonoma. It’s currently full with six children between 12 to 24 months. They offer year-around childcare for children 2 to 10 years of age, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., but already have a waiting list for all age groups for the fall.
Au pairs, grandparents, babysitters and nannies
Compounding the child care shortage was the fact that other options also evaporated.
During much of the pandemic, au pairs from overseas were not allowed to start new assignments in the U.S. because of travel restrictions.
Many families who would have had grandparents helping out were unable to continue because of the virus.
Local babysitters in Sonoma average $20 an hour, according to the Sonoma Valley Babysitters Facebook page, with some experienced nannies asking $30 per hour, according to local parents — a daunting cost for many working families in a town where the minimum wage is $15.
“It's been a challenge for us during the pandemic, especially, in addition to the challenge of daycare being closed and people not feeling comfortable being in one another's homes because of COVID concerns,” said Sonoma mom Jennifer Churchill. Her son’s father quit his job and took over their son’s schooling and care during the day while Churchill, a writer, worked.
“I could focus when I was at work, and appreciate the progress our son was making in math and reading with his dad there with him,” she said.
Local mom Christine Johnson moved to Sonoma in 2019 and found it challenging to find childcare for her 2-year-old when she wanted to go back to work a few days a week.
She finally found an affordable local daycare spot in a preschool focused on art and nature, with “a great teacher” and an opening.
“We loved her, and her school,” Johnson said. The school closed when COVID hit in March 2020.
Local mom Abigail Samoun and her husband spend about the same amount on childcare for their two children as they do for their mortgage every month, and it still doesn’t cover all of their working hours.
“The pandemic just brought the crisis to the surface,” Samoun said. “Being a middle-class working parent in the Bay Area is stressful, expensive, and exhausting. Throw in a kid with special needs and it often feels just impossible.”
One local school principal who asked not to be named said that even with her professional position and salary, it has still been difficult to cover the cost of childcare in Sonoma Valley. She has found it challenging to manage all of her work responsibilities and her children’s needs during the pandemic. She also noted that she sees other mothers struggling and even suffering during the pandemic, trying to juggle work, caring for their children and overseeing their education all at the same time.
The Sonoma Valley Education Foundation hopes to help fill in some of the gaps.
“Our research is inspiring us to think creatively about viable options to better support families in Sonoma Valley,” Ryan said. “We have a clear picture of how we can effectively move forward and are excited to share those next steps with the community in the coming months."