When 19-year old Milwaukee native Lenesha Barr discovered her six-month-old son, LaShaun, tested positive for coronavirus in April, she panicked.
“There’s a risk that he might die from this,” says Barr, a cook at Wendy’s on unpaid leave, is classified as an essential worker. “So in my head, I’m thinking he hasn’t really had time to live. So what if he dies before he ever gets that chance?”
LaShaun has since recovered, but Barr suspects he picked up the virus at his daycare. She trusted the daycare to keep her kids safe because it is owned by her fiance’s family members, but the fact that the facility didn’t appear to have any social distancing or special cleaning measures in place made her nervous, Barr says. The facility has since shut down due to the pandemic.
Soon after her son became sick, Barr had to pull him and his four-year-old brother from the daycare to keep them and the other children at the center from getting sick. She’s since had to take unpaid leave from her job to look after the two boys around-the-clock and limit their outside exposure. “It’s been crazy trying to keep [the children] apart, keep everybody away from each other, so nobody gets sick, and keep everything constantly wiped down,” she says.
Gaining access to affordable quality child care in Milwaukee was already a challenge for many parents, particularly for those currently deemed “essential workers,” who are disproportionately African-American and low-income. Now, parents, such as Barr, are being forced to choose between losing essential income to care for children at home, or risk contracting coronavirus by sending their children to child care facilities that have long struggled to adequately support workers, maintain safe conditions, and provide enough slots to accommodate children. Meanwhile, coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations are rising in Wisconsin, and black residents make up a disproportionate share of the death toll.
Half of Wisconsin’s child care facilities shuttered
Since March 18, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services has allowed child care settings to stay open as long as they operate with no more than 10 staff members and 50 children at a time, and follow state-issued coronavirus guidance. Roughly 50 percent of group child care centers in Wisconsin and in Milwaukee have shut down, according to the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, an organization focused on improving early childhood education and child care in Wisconsin. Essential workers are, in theory, able to apply for child care through a state online portal, though the system has faced major backlogs.
Wisconsin’s child care centers did not receive federal relief until May 18, when the state Department of Children and Families announced the rollout of $51 million in federal funds for child care assistance — significantly less than the $125 million Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers proposed in March.
Pre-pandemic, only one in three children in Milwaukee lived in neighborhoods with adequate access to quality early childcare facilities, according to a 2019 study commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. African-American, Latinx and low-income neighborhoods are even less likely to have access to quality child care facilities than white or higher income neighborhoods.
“The state of childcare in Milwaukee before this crisis is emblematic of our childcare system writ large,” says Catherine White, director of childcare and early learning for the National Women’s Law Center, a legal defense and public policy organization focused on women. “Even before this crisis, parents had a really hard time finding care that met their needs.”
Barr and her fiance made a combined $1,300 a month when she was still working at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, she receives $600 of that from the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Family program, Wisconsin Works, on top of her fiance’s salary. Because they are considered low-income, the family qualifies for subsidized child care through Wisconsin Shares, a child care subsidy program for low-income families. But finding facilities that fit their work schedules has been an issue. Half of the licensed child care centers in Milwaukee operate from 7 A.M to 7 P.M, leaving both Barr and her fiance who, pre-pandemic, regularly worked from 6 A.M through 3 P.M, in a tough spot.
In the past, both Barr and her fiance’s parents helped fill child care gaps. But after Barr’s son fell ill with coronavirus, she’s cautious about leaving him with other caretakers. Most of her family members have practiced social distancing but many of them also have essential jobs that require them to leave the home and interact with strangers, who could potentially be sick, she says.
In June, the mother of two plans to return to work at Wendy’s to begin training as a manager and she is still worried about managing her childrens’ health and making ends meet.. “We’re still working out the kinks every single day to figure out what we’re going to do next.”
Barr and her fiance discussed the possibility of working opposite shifts – one on days, the other on overnights – so they are able to share childcare responsibilities and keep both boys at home.
Living on a household income below well below the poverty line for a family of four, Barr’s decision to return to work was largely financial.
Barr, who first began receiving Wisconsin Works benefits during her high-risk pregnancy with LaShaun in 2019, says she can continue to receive the benefits while she takes unpaid leave from her job to care for her sons. The Wisconsin legislature moved to limit the amount of time individuals can receive Wisconsin Works benefits over the course of their lifetime from 60 to 48 months in 2015. Barr says she doesn’t want to risk using up all of her time while she still has a job to go back to, and would prefer to save her remaining months for use if she’s unemployed in the future.
As of May 25, Wisconsin had yet to pay 728,000 unemployment claims filed since March. The state has experienced a 670 percent spike in unemployment claims.
“Childcare is a public good” for women and the economy
Finding daycare facilities that meet both the budgets and schedules of parents aren’t the only concerns. Well before COVID-19, only 40 percent of providers in Milwaukee met the proficient standard of care, according to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
Barr looks for child care that meets at least a three out of five YoungStar rating, a child care quality metric used by the state of Wisconsin. But even at higher-rated facilities, she has felt uncomfortable, she says. Her previous daycare would send the children home with different hats, car seats, and even pacifiers, according to Barr. “You can’t trust everybody,” she says.
Since the start of the pandemic, safety is an even greater concern, says Jeanne Labana, Milwaukee program manager at the Wisconsin Early Education Shared Service Network, an arm of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.
Facilities can take several steps in the short-term to make facilities safer, experts believe.
Reducing the class size of child care facilities has to be one of the main objectives, which the state already mandates, says Ruth Schmidt, Executive Director of Wisconsin Early Childhood Association. This means investing in programs or subsidies that allow child care providers to operate smaller home-based facilities, and subsidizing care centers so they can afford to operate with smaller classroom sizes.
“There’s no social distancing with two-year-olds, infants or even three and four-year-olds, you can’t do that. It just doesn’t work,” says Labana. This is especially true in some of the facilities she’s seen in Milwaukee, where programs can have 40 to 50 children present at a time.
Investing in proper PPE and cleaning materials for child care facilities is another hurdle, experts say.
Child care facilities have struggled to get the necessary personal protective gear and sanitation supplies. “No masks have been available this entire time, gloves are at a premium, and there’s no sanitation, there’s no Lysol anywhere, you can’t get it,” says Labana.
For essential workers, there aren’t many good options when it comes to child care right now.
“The decision is not about whether to work or not to work. The decision is only: ‘I have to work,’” says Labana, “People have kept their kids in the programs that they are used to, and just wish for the best.”
LaKeesha Brown, who runs Building Bridges, a Medicaid care coordination program for new and expectant mothers, says she’s counseling working mothers who feel forced into sending their children to daycare during a health outbreak.
“They’re very concerned about their children,” she says. “A lot of my clients aren’t doing well mentally because of it.”
“If you have no money, how do you provide for your kids? How do you provide for your family? It’s scary.”
Despite the high cost of child care for parents, child care facilities tend to operate on razor-thin margins, in part because of necessary staffing regulations for facilities that can make it expensive to provide care, says Schmidt. Now, with diminishing class sizes and financial pressures mounting, child care providers are under enormous strain. It will cost $9.6 billion monthly to fund existing child care systems in the United States, the National Women’s Law Center estimates.
So far, Congress has provided $3.5 billion to child care providers nationwide during the pandemic. This number is far lower than what White and other experts argue is necessary. And Wisconsin’s $51 million in federal funds for child care assistance could potentially only last a few months.
“Childcare is a public good,” says White, of the National Women’s Law Center. “It benefits the women who need to go to work, it supports our economy, and so what we really need is public investment to fill the gaps… without putting the squeeze on parents.”
Still, Barr and her fiance aren’t rushing to send the two children back to daycare, given the health risks, even if it impacts them financially.
“It does put us in a really bad place,” says Barr. “We have to work, because if you don’t work, you can’t live. If you have no money, how do you provide for your kids? How do you provide for your family? It’s scary.”