One of the biggest challenges for busy families is often finding child care.
Child care facilities, such as a licensed daycare or pre-school, can often be outside the financial means of working families. For many parents working in the retail, service or manufacturing industries, it may also be hard to find child care outside the normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day. In some rural areas and urban areas, child care opportunities may not exist at all.
A recent report by the Center for American Progress took a look at “child care deserts.”
The Center defines a child care desert as any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three time as many children as licensed child care slots.
For the United States, the Center found that 51 percent of Americans live in a child care desert. But when New York state is examined, 64 percent of residents there live in a child care desert.
The Center even has a map tool where you can look up any census tract in the country to see if you live in a child care desert.
While this seems like some pretty stark news, it’s only part of the story.
In the absence of affordable, licensed child care opportunities – or because they are too expensive and don’t typically operate outside of normal business hours – parents and caregivers often resort to “FFN,” or family, friends or neighbors, care.
There is also the question of before and after-school care for children who are not old enough to supervise themselves. Life is messy. Work schedules do not always align with the school day.
But because these before and after-school programs are not mandated, they vary widely from school district to school district and even from school to school within districts. They also vary in cost.
In addition, children with physical disabilities or socio-emotional concerns can make it even harder for families in terms of both child care during the day and before and after-school programs.
What does child care have to do with education?
The report from the Center for American Progress indicates that child care seems to have a great deal.
Their study found that children at age 5 who attend classroom-based pre-school have stronger math and reading skills than those who receive FFN care.
The report recognizes that FFN has great value to families who might not otherwise have access to child care. Often, the FFN caregiver is a trusted and influential person in a child’s life.
Before and after-care programs in a school or other formal setting offer children a safe place to do homework, socialize and unwind. But, like daytime child care, these are also beyond the reach of many families due to where they live or expense.
My family is very lucky. We have a Boys and Girls Club within a three-minute walk of their school. Their club offers memberships for a suggested donation of $100 per year per child. Other communities might have a YMCA or other facility that provides before and after-care and still others may have programs that are based right in the school.
I know I would much rather have my son and daughter be able to have fun with other children in a safe environment after school, rather than have them at home, where they are away from other children and the lure of screen time is persistent. My daughter uses part of her after-school time to do homework. For my son, it is a much needed opportunity for him to run around and blow off steam.
The value of these types of before and after-care programs came in sharp focus in the city of Cohoes last fall.
Without warning, the local community center that managed the Cohoes City School District’s program closed its doors due to financial issues. Recognizing the void these programs fill for families, Cohoes CSD Board of Education member and administrators stepped up and bridged the gap until a permanent solution could be found.
But other school districts are not so lucky. Some simply have no options. For rural schools, it’s often a matter of geography. For urban schools, there may be options within their cities, but not in or near a school, which creates a transportation problem. For both, the cost of these programs – while often nominal – is still beyond the means of many families.
The Center for American Progress advocates at the federal and state government level for universal pre-k and other child care programs.
But what can be done at a local level?
Sherri Houck is an elementary school counselor at a rural New York school where there is a full-day pre-kindergarten program. Without the UPK program at Unadilla Valley CSD, Houck said, there have been parents who would not have been able to maintain employment.
Houck also indicated that there were not good options for before or after-school care programs in many districts.
In recent years, my work has often focused on issues related to poverty. In training to better understand poverty and how it affects education, I have participated in two poverty simulation exercises. In both, the issue of childcare, including before and after-school care, were identified as major obstacles. What also was identified as an obstacle, was that families either weren’t aware of resources that were available to them or, for some reason, were not accessing them.
Schools have been focusing more and more on adding social workers and parent support specialists in order to help families navigate the web of services that might be available to them, including those related to child care or before and after-school care. Houck said this is a good first step.
The Center for American Progress study also indicates that FFN providers could be a preferred mode of care for families. But suggested that they be equipped with knowledge and support to ensure that the care they provide is educationally enriching. Perhaps, through training and support to FFN providers, this is an area where schools can help fill a void when formal day care and before and after-school care is lacking.
Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is a father of two. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.