The COVID-19 crisis has been hard on a lot of small businesses and particularly so for child-care providers, many of which were on shaky financial ground to start with. A large number have closed during the pandemic; some may be gone for good.
In response, a growing number of experts and policymakers from both sides of the aisle are calling for a financial boost to the child-care sector, to make sure employed parents have adequate child care so they can go back to work. These efforts to shore up child care should prioritize helping home-based providers. Before COVID-19, they had an important role to play — a role that’s even more crucial in the wake of the pandemic.
Even before the coronavirus, home-based, “family child-care” providers — those who care for children in their own home, rather than at a child-care center — were the most fragile part of an unstable sector. Since 2005, the number of licensed, home-based child-care businesses has declined by 44 percent — almost 100,000 providers — while the capacity of child-care centers has increased.
That’s been a big loss for the many families who prefer a home, rather than institutional, environment for their young children. And, for several reasons, some families who previously sent their children to a child-care center may now feel more comfortable with a smaller, home-based setting.
First, home-based child-care providers care for much smaller groups of children than centers do, which means — as we now all know — less scope for disease transmission. In most home-based child care, one or two adults care for a group of just five or ten of the same children every day, compared with multiple adults and dozens or even hundreds of children in one center.
Second, the logistics of maintaining a clean and safe environment in a home are also easier to manage. Because child-care centers enroll much larger groups of children, many states are implementing new regulations for centers — such as temperature-checking, ongoing sanitization, frequent handwashing, and face masks — that are challenging to carry out with little kids. “Social distancing” with preschoolers is obviously out of the question.
Finally, because home-based providers care for children of different ages in one group, young siblings can be together during the day, rather than separated into age-specific classrooms. That’s always been important to some parents and — for both parents and children — may matter even more now, in the context of a stressful and uncertain time.
In addition to caring for children, home-based child care also plays another valuable role: offering an accessible pathway to entrepreneurship and small-business ownership in low-income communities, especially for women. Almost all communities need child care. And it’s easier to launch a home-based child-care program than open a center, while ongoing overhead costs are lower because the business is operated out of the owner’s home.
Helping local residents start home-based child care increases the number of small-business owners while also expanding availability of child care in lower-income communities. An economic impact analysis of a project supporting home-based child-care businesses in New Haven, for example, found substantially increased annual income among the proprietors — mostly low-income, African-American women — along with greater availability of high-quality, community-based child care and an overall boost to the regional economy.
In the middle of COVID-19 and beyond, an especially promising strategy for shoring up and expanding home-based child care is to create networks that connect multiple home-based providers in a local region, aiming to “keep child care programs small and intimate where it matters . . . and making them big where it counts,” as Sue Renner argues at ChildCareExchange.com. These networks centralize operational functions, creating economies of scale for small home-based programs, and help providers with everything from improving quality to strengthening business practices to more efficient purchasing of supplies.
A growing number of organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, are offering these kinds of “shared services,” providing both business and pedagogical support. It’s a valuable approach that states can use to organize and support home-based providers, in particular.
Child-care policies often emphasize centers, which might be because they’re easier to picture: With age-segregated classrooms, administrators’ offices, and hallways decorated with children’s art, they look like little schools. Home-based child care, on the other hand, occurs in thousands of distinct homes, which — even if harder for policymakers to grasp — offer the smaller-scale, mixed-age care that many families prefer.
Helping those thousands of homes provide high-quality care for young children, and enabling more to join them, is a powerful way to support the families and communities who, especially now, need it the most.