During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nancy Sylvester watched with growing concern as child care centers around her own center in Jackson, Miss. closed their doors – for good.

“There was one center that was just down the street, the largest center in this area, which had been here 30 years,” said Sylvester, a retired public school counselor who runs the nonprofit Global Connection Learning Center in Mississippi’s capital city. “It closed and didn’t reopen.”

In fact, 18 childcare programs within a five-mile radius of Sylvester’s center closed between March 2020 and March 2021, according to data Reckon obtained from the Mississippi State Department of Health. The state lost 125 providers total during that year.

And while the department doesn’t track specific reasons for closures, Sylvester said at least some center owners she knows closed their doors for virus-related reasons: They had older employees who chose to retire rather than risk COVID-19 exposure, or the owners were unable to afford the titanic expense of purchasing enough cleaning materials and protective equipment to reopen safely.

Then there was the decline in enrollment and income facing nearly every center as children remained home with parents who lost jobs and couldn’t afford child care or who didn’t feel comfortable sending their children out during a pandemic.

“Some of these centers could not survive,” said Cassandra Welchlin, lead organizer of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, which has supported childcare providers like Sylvester during the pandemic. “And it’s a big blow because childcare centers are the centers of our communities.

“When you take them out, you really disrupt the system.”

Before the pandemic, the South was already a place where childcare workers are paid less, even when wages are adjusted for cost of living, than the national average. Many places in the South, particularly rural areas, don’t have enough childcare slots for the number of eligible children.

This year, Reckon obtained data on childcare program closures in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and spoke with child care owners and advocates across the South to get a clearer picture of how the pandemic affected the South’s childcare infrastructure.

We found that communities of color are disproportionately affected, that government funding has helped keep many centers afloat but doesn’t provide reliable long term support, and staffing shortages are reaching crisis levels.

And yet, we also found a diverse army of advocates, owners and working parents pushing for change to keep the South’s patchwork childcare system from collapsing. They’re asking policy makers to listen and to take action — before more programs are lost.

“We’ve not reached the end of this yet,” said Pam Tatum, CEO of Quality Care for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group that’s operated in Georgia for more than 40 years. “Programs are hanging on by a thread.

“We don’t know how many more will close.”

Across the South

Jackson was hit disproportionately hard by childcare closures during the first year of the pandemic: The city is home to about 12 percent of Mississippi’s childcare providers but accounted for more than 27 percent of childcare closures in the state.

The losses weren’t felt equally across Jackson neighborhoods. The zip codes that lost the most childcare providers were in communities of color.

The five Mississippi zip codes – all in Jackson – that lost the most childcare providers are majority-Black and have poverty rates significantly higher than the state average. In one northwest Jackson zip code that lost at least seven providers, nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level.

Childcare providers, particularly those that operate in low-income communities, were already vulnerable before the pandemic increased their expenses and decreased child enrollment.

“We all know child care is not a money-making business,” said Leslie Latimer, executive director of the Palmetto Shared Services Alliance, a childcare support organization based in South Carolina. “A lot of these centers literally end up net-zero” in profit, she said. Since the pandemic started, “It is so much more expensive to run these programs. Those increased costs, in conjunction with lower enrollment numbers, meant some centers just could not operate.”

Childcare programs nationwide are staffed almost entirely by women, with women of color disproportionately represented.

“Particularly when you’re talking about serving low-income children, you’re talking about childcare centers owned and operated by Black women,” said Welchlin. “They got in the business because they are serving the community. But they were already struggling in how to remain viable businesses, how to operate without higher fees.

“So when the pandemic hit, it was a complete blow.”

In Georgia, 2,530 childcare programs across the state reported at least one temporary closure due to COVID between March 2020 and March 2021. That’s more than half of the approximately 4,526 programs currently open.

At least 282 Georgia programs closed their doors for good during that year.

Tennessee saw 57 programs close permanently in the first year of COVID, with about 2,000 programs currently open.

Alabama doesn’t specifically track child care program closures, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources. But the state reported 2,312 programs open as of March 2021, a loss of 136 programs from the 2,448 that were open about a year earlier.

$12 an hour or less

Toyin Okunoren has a waiting list at least 20 names long at Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Ga. Okunoren opened Little Ones more than 25 years ago in the metro Atlanta community, where 90 percent of her children qualify for subsidies that help their families afford child care.

“I fervently believe in being a part of the community and trying to make a difference,” said Okunoren. Her center operates a community garden and farm stand that provides fresh produce for the center and surrounding areas. “I believe we are the backbone of the economy. If people have to work, they need child care.”

Toyin Okunoren, owner and founder of Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Ga., talks with her students and staff. (Contributed)

Before the pandemic, Little Ones typically cared for around 150 children. Right now, the center averages no more than 60 on a given day, she said.

So why the waiting list, if they have the space?

Not enough staff.

“I have a few staff that work here from sun up to sundown because of the massive labor shortage,” said Okunoren’s daughter, Wande Okunoren-Meadows, who is the center’s executive director and leads the center’s nonprofit arm, the Hand Heart + Soul Project.

“And that’s not fair, a few staff working open to close, caring for other peoples’ children. It keeps me up late at night.”

Pre-pandemic, wages in the child care industry averaged around $12 an hour nationally. But hourly wages for child care workers in the South are among the lowest in the nation, according to the U.S. Bueau of Labor Statistics. The median hourly wage in the Deep South in 2019 hovered around $9 an hour, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. In most Southern states, that falls well below a living wage.

Nearly 18 months into the pandemic, a shortage of qualified staff is one of the biggest threats to childcare programs.

“You cannot keep staff,” said Latimer. The jobs board that her organization operates in South Carolina usually sees around 10-12 jobs posted; in recent months it’s been closer to 40 or 50.

“No exaggeration, people are leaving the (childcare) field to go work at Starbucks because it pays more and has more benefits, like college tuition and health care,” said Latimer. “We’re losing so many people in the field.”

And for providers that are financially struggling, or for those whose students rely on government subsidies, raising wages may not be an option. With subsidies that cover most of the children at Okunoren’s center, the government reimburses the center a set amount of money per child per month. That means she can’t easily raise her rates in order to offer higher wages to staffers.

’Funding, funding, funding’

So when it comes to solutions to the crisis facing the South’s child care infrastructure: “It all comes down to funding, funding, funding,” said Okunoren. “So we can go on doing what we need to do, providing the quality care, making sure the children are kept safe, and hiring better qualified staff.”

Since last year, additional federal funding aimed at propping up the childcare system has funneled billions of dollars through state agencies to providers in the form of grants or improved subsidy reimbursement rates. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are currently wrangling over President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which would allocate about $450 billion to lower the cost of child care and provide all children two years of universal pre-K.

Advocates and childcare owners say they want to see lawmakers and policy-makers put childcare workforce and wages at the top of their priority lists.

“We have to ask ourselves, why has childcare been underpaid? Because it’s traditionally been women’s work. It’s traditionally been people of color’s work,” said Okunoren-Meadows. “By and large, this has not been a respected field. But throughout Georgia, there are thousands of educators who go to school for this work. They are not glorified babysitters. They are passionate. We have to show appreciation for their field of work.”

Toyin Okunoren, right, and her daughter Wande Okunoren-Meadows, run the Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Ga. (Contributed)

Okunoren said she’s grateful for the additional money that the federal CARES Act and other public funding has provided. It’s been a lifeline.

But it’s also hard to plan for the future when there’s no guarantee that the funding will stick around.

“I’m sitting on pins and needles every day,” said Okunoren. “When will the bottom drop out? What are we going to do? We hear the current administration talking about child care as one of the major focuses with the budget. Are we going to get that? It’s a daily concern for me.”

It’s a sentiment echoed around the South. “Things are just unpredictable form one day to the next,” said Tatum, with the Georgia nonprofit Quality Care for Children . “Providers are responding to challenges as quickly as they can, with no idea when this will ever end.”

But if there’s one positive that’s come out of the past year, it’s the increased attention paid to child care as a part of the economic infrastructure of the state, say advocates.

Okunoren-Meadows has been active in educating leaders at the state level to prioritize child care, with some success. But it’s advocacy work she said she’d like to see more people join in.

“We need people to know we don’t feel valued,” she said. “We need people to advocate for us.”

This story was supported by a reporting fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University.