Closing The Gap

Many child-care facilities aren't accepting kids, but for some parents, the bills keep coming


You get what you pay for — usually. But as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many parents find themselves at home with their kids 24/7, while still paying child-care bills.

With much of the nation still following some forms of social distancing measures, in many states child-care centers and preschools remain closed to everyone but the children of essential employees. Yet many families are still paying hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in tuition each month to help their day cares stay afloat and ensure there will be a spot for their child when they're able to reopen.

Take Sabrina Ryan, for example. Her life is now dictated by a shared calendar. In order to balance work responsibilities and caring for their 3-year-old son, Ryan and her husband rely on a carefully coordinated schedule to determine who can have the designated work space at different times within their two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

"I have video calls almost all day, so we coordinate schedules by blocking off a shared calendar, and when we have overlaps, we choose the less-serious call and one of us takes it from the kitchen with our toddler," Ryan says. "We have a desk and monitor set up in our bedroom, and we switch off using it while the other one floats."

Nap time has become sacred, with Ryan saying that time is the "key to success" to getting her work done. But getting that mid-day break was a hard-won battle. "We had to fight to get the routine set because in the first two weeks of lockdown, he refused to nap," she says. After dinner, Ryan logs back on and works until after midnight most nights, trying to catch up on tasks that were sidelined during normal work hours. 

"This isn't sustainable, but we're making it work for now," Ryan says. 

Doing the right thing is becoming difficult to justify

While Ryan and her husband have been caring for their son at home since March 20, they are still paying $2,000 per month to the day care he attended before the pandemic. "We are continuing to pay because we love the teachers and want the day care to survive," she says. The day care wasn't able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but they confirmed with Ryan that the staff would continue to get paid, as long as the majority of parents keep paying tuition. Ryan plans to as long as her family's financial situation stays the same.

Sabrina Ryan and her son in Brooklyn before the coronavirus pandemic.

"Every day he has been there since he was four months old, I have never thought twice about his safety or whether he was happy," Ryan says. "That is such a special thing that has great value for us, and we keep it in our minds to have perspective in this situation."

But the decision to pay in full each month is increasingly hard to justify. "It's just hard to pay for something so expensive when you are not getting the service," Ryan says. Especially when that money could go toward helping others — including her parents, who own a small business and have not been able to get a loan from the Small Business Administration as of yet. "It feels odd to spend money on day care when I could be giving it to my family."

Ryan isn't alone in paying for care she can't use. About 17% of parents say they're continuing to pay their child-care provider during the pandemic, even if their children are not currently attending, to ensure the facility remains in business, according to a recent survey by MassMutual of 1,500 U.S. adults with at least one child under the age of 18.

For many parents, there's also additional costs on top of their day-care, preschool or child-care bills. About 38% of parents say they're spending more money on their children during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many purchasing toys and games, home-school equipment and educational activities. 

Coming to a compromise

Since day cares closed in mid-March, Brooklyn-based Dena K.* and her husband have spent their days trying to keep up with their son, who is almost 2. "My son is very active. He's constantly getting into things," Dena says, joking that some days, it feels like he's "on a mission to kill himself." Bottom line: He needs constant attention, she says.

That's just one reason why Dena, 41, loves her day care so much — they get her son. But while she paid full tuition, about $2,000, for all of March, she and other parents at the day care resisted paying in full again for April. "While both my husband and myself are still fully employed, paying $2,000 a month (the full tuition) was very financially stressful for us," Dena says. 

Especially since the center was only offering minimal virtual learning opportunities. "The day care is not providing us with any Zooms or any other interactive virtual stuff," Dena says, adding that the center only sent a link for an educational website. "Since our son isn't even in preschool yet, none of that stuff is helpful."

When the day care first asked parents to pay full tuition for April, Dena says she and her husband felt very conflicted. "We ultimately decided that we wanted to pay half tuition," she says, adding that they are also planning on paying half for May. 

Dena wants to make sure the day care stays open, and she'd also like to hold her son's spot at the facility, saying it would be a major problem for the family if she had to find a new option. "I wouldn't even know what to do," she says, adding she was really stressed out about getting him into a day care in the first place. "I did not sign up when we were pregnant, I waited until I was on maternity leave," Dena says, adding that she couldn't even get on a waitlist at some places.

"It would be an enormous crisis if [the day care] closed. That is why we really want to financially support them," Dena says. And half tuition, at least for now, feels like a good compromise, she says. 

Making the decision to stop paying

After about a month, Chicago-based Kathleen Hall, 34, decided that the expense of paying for care she couldn't use had became too much. She made the decision to unenroll her two children from their full-time day care a couple of weeks ago. "I didn't realize how long this is going to go on for," Hall says. "So we pulled our kids out of care because child-care costs so much for us — it's such a big chunk of our income," Hall says. 

At first, continuing to pay made sense, Hall says. Especially because her provider is one-woman operation running the day care out of her home. "We've been with this woman for over three years. We have a good relationship with her. She's a huge part of my oldest child's life," she says. "While this is a kind of unheard of situation, she doesn't deserve to get screwed over just because of the situation we're in."

Kathleen Hall, a PhD candidate in linguistics, is caring for her children while working to finish her dissertation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Plus, the day care didn't close; the business has remained open to children of essential workers. Hall's husband works in the health-care industry, so their kids could have continued to attend because he's considered an essential worker. But as the number of cases in Chicago grew, they felt it was safer to keep the children at home. 

Yet as the shutdown has dragged on, keeping her son, almost 4, and 10-month old daughter home for over a month changed the family's future plans. "I was supposed to graduate this summer," Hall says, adding she had planned to get a job as soon as she finished her doctorate. "Now I probably will need to stay an extra quarter because with my kids at home, I can't get anything done. I cannot write. My dissertation is impossible." 

That's when she realized that the family may need their child-care budget to stretch even further. So continuing to pay $2,000 every month — which over the year adds up to a quarter of the household income annually — wasn't feasible. "I realized I needed to be saving this money so that we would have the extra money for the full quarter [of school]," Hall says. 

Hall and her husband are far from the only Americans struggling with child-care bills, and this was an issue even before the pandemic. Just over a third of millennial parents (ages 24 to 39) say that child care is a very significant financial burden, with families paying an average of $1,480 per month, according to a recent CNBC Make It survey conducted by YouGov of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults, almost 400 of which were millennial parents with at least one child under the age of 10. 

Over half, 56%, of millennial parents have had to cut down on their monthly expenses to afford child care. On average, families cut back about $1,190 a month in order to pay for child care. 

Day-care and preschool costs grew almost twice as fast as overall inflation between 2000 and 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute. In fact, Gould found day care and preschool inflation grew 94% while overall inflation grew 48% from 2000 to 2019.

But the decision to unenroll is not without some risk. "I'm hoping that when things reopen that [the day care] will have a spot for my youngest, who's 10 months," Hall says, adding that she hopes to enroll her son in preschool. But re-enrolling may be a challenge. "That's going to be tricky because I imagine everyone's gonna be looking for child care at the same time," she says. 

"It's going to be a really big burden if we have to scramble to find care for them," Hall says. "And it's going to fall on me to find it. But also if we can't find it, I'm going to be the one who stays home to take care of them at my own expense in terms of my education and career."

*Subject's last name has been withheld to protect her privacy. 

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Why child care is so expensive in America
Why child care is so expensive in America