Pandemic’s return adds new pressure on child care, working families

State provider numbers are improving, but some say the resources are being stretched drastically

By: - September 1, 2021 7:00 am
chldren playing

Tina Floersch | Unsplash

As COVID-19 infections in Wisconsin have once again been rising dramatically, the resurgent pandemic has put new pressure on child care providers and the parents who are counting on them.

Across the state, providers strapped for staff have had to cut back on how many children they can take. Some report that their current strain is simply a continuation of what they’ve faced since early in the pandemic. For others, however, what was already a bad situation has taken a noticeable turn for the worse in recent months.   

“It has been more desperate — what we’re seeing out there — than what it was in the spring,” says Renee Ernsting, director of Child Care Partnership in Eau Claire, which provides child care resource and referral services for families in 10 western Wisconsin counties.

On paper, the availability of child care appears to be improving. According to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF), there were 4,075 active child care facilities open as of Thursday, Aug. 26 — up by 38 centers from two weeks earlier, but still 29 fewer than the 4,104 providers that were reported open on July 1.

The number of open child care centers can go up and down from day to day, says DCF spokeswoman Gina Paige: In August 2021, DHS counted less than 6.5% of centers that were temporarily closed, while a year earlier, in September 2020, more than 11% were shut down.

The number of open centers is only part of the picture, however. If a child care provider temporarily reduces capacity — closing a classroom because it doesn’t have enough teachers, for example — that doesn’t show up in the state statistics.

Wisconsin’s licensed child care providers have room to care for 262,647 children — 4.3% more child care slots than the state had on March 1, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic had been widely detected in the state. But state reports don’t track whether all of those slots are available on any given day.

Accurate enrollment data doesn’t exist

“We have no data system in the state of Wisconsin that tracks enrollment in child care programs,” says Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA). The state does record the number of children whose care is subsidized by the Wisconsin Shares program for low-income residents, but not the rest of the state’s children who are in care outside the home, Schmidt explains. “There’s no way to tell the true story of what is going on in child care by the numbers, because the numbers don’t exist.”

Child care has been a recurring obstacle for many people who would like to work — or work full time instead of just part time. “Maintaining and improving access to affordable child care will be crucial to getting these parents and guardians [who have left employment] — particularly mothers — back into the workforce,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum stated in an April 2021 report on the drop in enrollments in the subsidized Wisconsin Shares program.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson at virtual Black History Month kickoff via Facebook. 2/1/21
Sen. LaTonya Johnson

“We’ve heard from employer after employer that if the day care thing was corrected, they could possibly get more people into the workforce,” says Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), who was a child care provider before entering politics and continues to pay close attention to the subject. “We’re hearing from providers that they’re having to shut down classrooms because they can’t find workers.”

Schmidt says WECA employees have also been hearing from providers, both at larger group centers and small family care providers, who are closing classrooms, reducing their capacity or cutting their hours of operation — all because they lack employees.

“My staff are probably more concerned about what’s going on in child care than I’ve seen in the 19 years that I’ve been at WECA,” Schmidt says.

In a still incomplete survey of child care programs in 11 counties that share administrative resources through a WECA network, 86% of those who have responded so far are looking for staff, while 73% have closed classrooms or reduced operating hours because they don’t have enough people to work for them. Nearly 250 families have been affected.

“We are also hearing that COVID is starting to have a more dramatic impact on classes of kids, because the delta variant spread so efficiently among our young children,” Schmidt says.

In Green Bay, Jamie Tramte Brassfield manages the early childhood resource and referral program for Family & Childcare Resources of Northeast Wisconsin, which covers seven counties and three Native American tribes in the region. “We are hearing from more parents than ever, calling back saying, ‘I got child care referrals from you — not a single one has an opening,’” she says.

One local program on her list has a waiting list of 67 children. “That feels very high to me,” Brassfield says. “This is a program whose capacity is 51 kids.”

Cautious optimism

At the same time, however, she harbors some cautious optimism. Although two group centers closed in June 2020, there’s been an influx of new child care programs seeking state licenses. “I’m hopeful that this is going to result in numbers coming back up” in licensed child care openings, Brassfield says.

The shortage of child care workers predated the pandemic. Wages are low — in Wisconsin, less than $12 an hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, entry level child care employees must undergo a minimum amount of required training in order to work, and ideally, will have an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in the field.

Young girls wearing protective masks running on sidewalk with backpacks for school.
Getty Images

“These things have always been true of the child care industry, but COVID made it harder,” says Jody Bartnick, executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care Inc., based in Madison and providing resource and referral services for families and child care providers in 11 southwestern and south-central Wisconsin counties. “Wages in the child care industry are lower than most other industries, including fast food restaurants and other entities.”

Tricia Peterson directs a child care center in Juneau with an official licensed capacity of 48 children. For now, however, enrollment is limited to 32 because the center can’t hire enough employees.

“It all comes down to funding,” Peterson says. Even at an above-average child care wage of $13 or $14 an hour, “that’s still not sustainable when they can go to a factory and make $24 or $25 an hour.”

Child care providers take responsibility for teaching social skills, ensuring the emotional well-being of children and helping them to prepare for school. “When people look at child care centers, they think we’re just babysitters,” Peterson says. “But we wear many hats.”

Wages alone might not be the only explanation. In the Taylor County community of Medford, Kelly Pope Jensen manages a child care center that normally accommodates 100 children. Now it’s down to 60. Instead of the usual complement of 13 teachers, the center has eight.

Caregivers opt out

The center has raised hourly wages for employees with a two-year associate degree to $15 and a bachelor’s degree to $17. Still, hiring remains a challenge. “This year alone, I think I had five interviews,” Jensen says. “I offered all of them a position; one actually showed up.”

In the meantime, the center has lost three teachers with degrees — one to work for an area Head Start program, another to a pre-kindergarten program at a local church and a third who opted to stay home with her children.

Jensen believes federal supplemental unemployment pay of $300 a week might be discouraging some applicants. Researchers have largely discounted any such link; nevertheless, the federal add-on will expire in early September.

Tashawna Green is a licensed family child care provider who works out of her home in Milwaukee. Her license permits up to eight children at a time, and when she started, she had enough employees to operate around the clock, an important benefit for shift workers.

An employee quit in 2020 after the pandemic started, and Green, whose only other employee now is her daughter, had to stop providing care for third-shift workers and reduce her second-shift enrollment.

She’s also tightened up restrictions when it comes to the children who arrive each day. “If you show any signs of a cough, a runny nose, you can’t come into the program,” Green says. “You’ve got to know your parents and trust them.”

In northwestern Wisconsin, Angela Norvold operates two child care centers, one in Hudson and one in Roberts. Each has a capacity of 49, but she has limited each center to 30 children. Even at those lower numbers, “this is the most children we’ve had during the pandemic,” Norvold says.

But for a week and a half, she had to close both centers down after four out of six teachers at one center tested positive for COVID-19. Five children were also positive for the virus and stayed home in quarantine.

Monday, both sites were able to reopen, still below capacity. Norvold is filling in herself as an assistant teacher for one age level from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. She has to do her paperwork and other administrative tasks “in my free time in the evenings,” she says.

‘We anticipate being forced to close again’

Last week alone, the two locations lost a combined $8,000, and Norvold expects more losses in the future. The school districts where her centers are located are starting this week without mask requirements.

“We expect positive cases to go up, and in the end, spread to our youngest children [in the care of the centers] when siblings bring it home from elementary school,” she says. “We anticipate being forced to close again.”

At her Deforest child care center, Macy Buhler says she’s hired four employees in the last month but two of them “backed out.” They had found other jobs, they told her, “and also they were rethinking working right now with the delta variant.”


Buhler’s center enrolled about 100 children before the pandemic, then dwindled to fewer than two dozen as cases rose last year. Over this summer, she had to close classrooms twice and move employees around because two vaccinated employees had breakthrough COVID-19; while they “weren’t terribly sick,” she says, they had to stay home to recover fully and avoid infecting others.

Five college students were available to help fill in during the summer, but they have now gone back to campus. “I’ll probably have to be in the classroom,” Buhler says. For the fall, she has planned for 70 to 80 children, and has scheduled 17 full-time employees and four part-timers.

Macy Buhler

Buhler connects being able to return to full capacity with the impact it would have in helping other employers in her area fill jobs. “I could have [children from] at least 20 more families in the center right now,” she says. “That would be up to 40 more people in the workforce.”

Some additional federal child care funding is on the horizon. Pandemic relief legislation that was enacted in late December included a series of measures. Among them are grants to states; Wisconsin has $10 million to help small and medium-size businesses cover the cost of child care for employees and $5 million to improve training for entry-level child care workers. The federal block grant funds are subject to approval by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Wisconsin’s 2021-2023 state budget also included some additional funds for child care. The Legislature added $102 million to cover the cost of the Wisconsin Shares subsidy program, including $29 million to increase the program’s maximum reimbursement rate, according to an analysis from the Wisconsin Budget Project. The project examines state budget and tax policies with a focus on their impact on low- and moderate-income families.

At the same time, however, the budget project found, the Legislature’s GOP majority deleted three provisions that Gov. Tony Evers had proposed to bolster support for child care and the working families who rely on it.

The largest of those deleted provisions was $53 million a year — $106 million over the budget’s two-year period — to subsidize child care centers certified by the state or opened by local school districts. That measure was aimed at helping providers where child care is particularly scarce.

State budget didn’t help

Another $500,000 a year was cut from the Evers budget that would have boosted the wages of veteran child care employees and those with additional education. And an additional $3.3 million was cut that would have funded social and emotional training and assistance for centers, so that fewer children would need to be removed because of their behavior.

Corrine Hendrickson

The net effect for child care providers was that “the state budget did not add anything” in the way of additional resources, says Corrine Hendrickson, a family care provider in Green County and a member of a child care advocacy group, Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed.

Providers’ frustration is widespread “for a lot of us,” Hendrickson says, “as we’re trying to hire somebody and not being able to offer health care benefits or being only able to offer $12 an hour.”

Some advocates are pinning their hopes on provisions related to child care that are part of the White House agenda for a $3.5 trillion budget deal now in Congress. Those include free tuition for community college, the first level of professional training for child care workers; federal subsidies for child care to eliminate the cost for many families and lower it for those of higher incomes; additional funding to offer small classes and inclusive curriculum for child care and other early education programs; and additional wage support and training for child care workers.

Johnson, the Milwaukee state senator and former child care provider, suggests that it’s no coincidence that child care workers are as poorly paid as they are — “because child care is looked at predominantly as a skill for women.”

But while wages need to go up, the cost of care also needs to remain affordable for middle-income parents, not just low-income families who currently qualify for subsidies, she believes.

“We need to treat child care like it’s an important part of making our economy successful — and we fail to do that,” Johnson says. “The long-term solution is to treat child care providers and professionals like they are professionals. For too long Wisconsin has treated the child care industry as just a  babysitting service.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.