For nearly 30 years, Patricia Twymon ran her day care business from her south suburban home in Calumet City. She started it as a way to work while caring for her own sons, but she soon found child care was her calling. She said she offered an intimate, family setting that was different from the larger child care centers in her area.
But then the pandemic hit, and her business took a scary and stressful turn. Some families started to pull their kids.
“That got harder and harder as the numbers got lower and lower,” Twymon said. “The amount of cleaning didn’t change. The amount of time spent in the program didn’t change.”
Twymon says home child care providers like her feared for the children’s health as well as their own. She and her husband are in their 60s, and her mother-in-law with pre-existing conditions lives with them. She felt she was given little guidance or financial help from the state. Finding protective gear and cleaning supplies came at an added cost.
“I would hear the news, it talked about everyone else being essential,” she recalls. “But it was not until late, late, late in the game that providers were even brought up [but] we were the very fiber that kept things together.”
Twymon says eventually there was some help through state and federal dollars, but it wasn’t enough. At the end of March, she let go of her staff who she’s worked with for years, said goodbye to her few remaining families and closed her day care for good.
“A lot of programs did not survive it,” she said. “I personally know about seven people that contracted COVID-19. And not one of them talked about someone reaching out to them to see what they needed.”
Many home day cares were stretched beyond their limits during the pandemic. Some day cares saw attendance drop, but had to maintain full service with less money. Preliminary research from Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy organization, finds 4% shut down for good over the past year, a slight uptick from previous years. The status of another 12% of home daycares remain uncertain. Some 84% of home daycares in Cook County that opened before the pandemic, remain open now.
Teresa Ramos, vice president of public policy and advocacy with Illinois Action for Children, says the home child care system has long been vulnerable.
“Even outside of the pandemic, they were front-ending dollars, borrowing from their retirement, their other savings from their homes in order to keep open,” she said.
Ramos says a key problem for providers is the different funding streams from the state. There’s one central agency that handles public schooling in Illinois, but that doesn’t exist for home child care providers. That’s forced them to split their time navigating complicated systems of licensing and subsidy payments while caring for children. That’s not usually the case at child care centers. .
Jane Talesnik has run her day care out of north suburban Highland Park home for 19 years. She says the decision to close her business next month was like pulling off a bandaid very slowly.
“I had nobody to consult with, aside from … colleagues that are directors of child care [centers], but that’s a whole different institution,” she said.
Talesnik said the setup between home and center child care is different, including payment contracts with families that provide consistent income and the availability of staff to focus on the business side of things.
When she closed her day care temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic, she didn’t realize that some of her families had quietly hired some of her staff as nannies. After reopening, she said it was difficult to stay afloat with lower attendance. She had to rearrange how she operated, plus there were a couple of COVID-19 cases among her families that forced her to shut temporarily, again. Come June, she’ll be closing permanently.
Dr. Juliet Bromer of Erikson Institute has been studying home day cares nationally and says they’ve been on the decline for years. A lack of a central agency has played a big part in addition to tough working conditions and low wages. The pandemic exacerbated the problem.
“Home based child care providers didn’t have health insurance before the pandemic,” Bromer said. “Imagine now that they’re the ones staying open to take care of all these families and not having health insurance during COVID is really scary.”
President Joe Biden has proposed investing $225 billion toward child care in the American Families Plan. That would include making child care more affordable and increasing high-quality care. Congress still needs to vote on Biden’s proposal, or some version of it, and Bromer hopes the investment will continue beyond the pandemic. She says while the past year has devastated some providers, this could signal a systemic change.
“It took a pandemic for home based child care to be recognized, or for child care at all, to be recognized as an essential infrastructure,” Bromer said.
In Illinois, an early childhood commission recently recommended an annual investment of more than $12 billion and a centralized agency that would benefit day cares. Currently, that funding is just under $2 billion to pay for child care subsidies for low-income families and state-funded preschool programs. The commission recommends the extra funds to go toward things like better pay and benefits for workers, expanded services for low-income families, increased staff and expanded language and mental health services.
Ramos says improving the state’s child care system is also an issue of equity. The majority of home daycare workers are women of color. She also says it’s often parents who work outside of the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day that rely on home-based child care.
“If the governor’s office and the General Assembly are bold, [steps] can be taken every year to build towards a new agency and build towards that $12 billion additional investment that we need,” Ramos said. “And to streamline some of the convoluted nature of how we deliver dollars to providers and families.”
Ramos says Illinois is doing better than other states in early childhood investments, but she doesn’t think the economy can fully recover if that network of providers and parents aren’t adequately supported.