Across the state, staff shortages are causing issues for childcare programs as the number of workers has dropped about 16% since 2018, according to a Buckhead-based advocacy group.

“If there’s less staff, that means that they can enroll less children, because, especially in childcare ratios, the number of children that any one teacher can take care of, are really important,” said Mindi Binderman, the founding executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS).

Mindi Binderman, the founding executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. (Special)

A decrease in enrollment also has been seen, she said. Families have yet to enroll their kids at the levels they did pre-pandemic. The range falls between a 12% and 22% decrease in enrollment. The wide range is because family childcare learning homes, smaller programs usually in a home but still licensed, have experienced a smaller decrease than family childcare centers, she said.

“There’s definitely still issues with affordability. Childcare is expensive, and families who were struggling before the pandemic are struggling even more now,” Binderman said.

In Georgia, infant and toddler care can cost as much as 40 percent of a low-income family’s income. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that childcare should only cost 7 percent of a family’s income.

GEEARS and the Metro Atlanta Chamber performed research and commissioned a survey of Georgia parents of children under 5, developing the report “Opportunities Lost: How Child Care Challenges Affect Georgia’s Workforce and Economy” in 2018. Binderman said her organization just closed a survey of 400 parents asking the same questions.

One of the questions was, Did you or anyone in the family have to quit a job to take a job or greatly change your job because of problems with childcare?

“It’s the same question we asked in 2018 as part of Opportunities Lost and preliminarily what it looks like is about 33.5% of respondents said yes,” she said.

That was 8.8 points higher than in 2018. She called that concerning, but not surprising after talking to families about how they’ve struggled with childcare, remote jobs and other issues.

Some assistance is available, including Childcare and Parent Services (CAPS) scholarships for those who qualify as lower income families.

“The challenge is that our CAPS program is underfunded. So you apply to the state for these scholarships, and we just don’t have enough funds for everyone who qualifies. I think we only serve about 15 percent of qualified families every year,” Binderman said.

Families who struggle look at a variety of ways to access childcare. They could rely on friends, family or neighbors to care for their children, she said. They could look for privately-funded scholarships.

Families have found many different patchwork ways to find childcare, she said. That’s a reason why GEEARS and its partners around the country are trying to convince Congress the country needs a substantial new investment in childcare that’s sustainable for the long haul. Families need help to ensure their children are in high-quality care to prepare them for kindergarten.

The state has used federal pandemic relief funding to help stabilize the childcare industry, Binderman said. Grants have gone to licensed centers to use for rent, payroll or whatever they need to keep their doors open. Georgians haven’t seen widespread childcare closures seen in other states.

“Now we don’t know if it’s that our childcare programs are hanging on a string and a prayer and credit. But right now we are pleased that we have roughly the same amount of licensed slots,” she said.

Another positive is that anyone working in a licensed childcare program in the state is getting power payments of $1,000, similar to what was given to K-12 teachers.

“So there are some bright spots, but we still have a long way to go to solve this childcare dilemma that was … present prior to the pandemic. And I think the pandemic only exposed the challenges with our childcare system in the country and certainly in Georgia,” Binderman said.

She said GEEARS works on policy research and public awareness building throughout the state to support kids from birth to age 5, and their families. The organization’s agenda includes ensuring childcare in Georgia is high quality, affordable and accessible. Affordable healthcare, health development programs, and family wellbeing issues like paid family leave, are other issues it supports.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.