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‘A nightmare’: Reno-Sparks parents struggle to find child care as pandemic lingers on

A preschool teacher is sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to a group of children. She is wearing a mask.
Kaleb Roedel
KUNR Public Radio
A teacher at MunchkinLand Preschool reads to a group of children on Tuesday, Nov. 16, in Reno, Nev.

Washoe County is seeing more child care providers close than open during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s a problem for many parents in Northern Nevada who are struggling to find affordable child care.

It’s a Wednesday morning and Nicole Alvord is watching her 3-year-old daughter Madison while chatting over Zoom. The two are nestled on the couch while Madison is watching one of her favorite movies.

Alvord, who lives in Sparks, has been trying to find child care for her daughter for more than a year.

“I’ll try to put it as lightly as possible, but it has been a nightmare,” Alvord said.

Alvord says most child care providers that she’s contacted are not only full but have long waiting lists. And that’s not the only hurdle. The average cost to put her daughter in daycare would be $800 a month or more.

“At this point, it’s a matter of not just expenses to pay for child care, but finding one that has availabilities, that has openings, that could work within our budget,” Alvord explained.

Out of options, Alvord was forced to make a choice that many working parents have made during the pandemic.

“I had to leave my job. So, I had broke down my personal work pay and my hours, and basically, I would end up with maybe $10 to $20 each check, and the rest would have to go all to child care. So at that rate, I’m basically working for somebody to watch our child,” Alvord said.

Nicole Alvord is holding her 3-year-old daughter in her arms while standing in front of the Burney Falls waterfalls in Shasta County, California.
Nicole Alvord
Nicole Alvord, who is photographed above holding her 3-year-old daughter Madison, made the decision to be a stay-at-home mom because of the lack of affordable child care in Washoe County.

Providers, however, say that lowering their enrollment rates could put them out of business.

Just ask Kim Mazy, owner of MunckinLand Preschool in Reno, who is gathering kids around for reading time with one of her teachers. Between overhead, regulation costs, and payroll, Mazy says turning a profit in child care is almost like a magic trick.

“It’s kind of like trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat in this industry because you want to keep your prices to where families can afford it, obviously. And then also, you know, you want to pay your staff as much as you possibly can. If you ask anybody that’s in business and you say, ‘this is the way this business model works,’ they’re like, ‘yeah, that doesn’t work,’ ” Mazy explained.

The pandemic has only compounded the problem. Mazy says she lost 30% of her business last year after her enrollment was upended by COVID-19 shutdowns. Now, she’s maxed out with 30 kids and has about 15 more on her waiting list.

“Well, I’ll tell you, the phone rings every single day with people that say, you know, ‘I need a spot for my 2-year-old and 4-year-old next week.’ I mean, I don’t have a spot for them. But then they also will say, ‘Who can you recommend?’ And we are lacking spaces available for the number of families that need space for their children,” Mazy said.

In Washoe County, there are currently 200 licensed child care facilities, according to the county’s human services agency, which is a 7% decrease when compared to before the pandemic.

“In 2021, we had 23 licenses that closed and only 13 new licenses. And so, there’s a couple of different reasons for this,” said Amber Howell, who heads the agency.

Howell says one of the main reasons is staffing shortages. Recent data shows that the U.S. child care workforce is down 10% compared to pre-pandemic.

This might not come as a surprise. The average teacher makes about $24,000 a year and nearly half receive some public assistance.

At MunchkinLand Preschool, Mazy says providers have to find ways to pay their teachers more.

“In order to get quality staff, you’re just having to pay higher and higher rates. I mean, we’re looking at, like I saw In-N-Out Burger the other day is $15 an hour. You know, and my girls have experience and education in this field. So obviously, you want to compensate them accordingly,” Mazy explained.

To do so, Mazy says she has no choice but to raise her enrollment rates, and she plans to increase them next month.

“And I feel bad when I have to raise rates for parents because I know that, you know, usually their child care expenses are second-largest expense only to their rent or mortgage,” Mazy said.

Nationally, the cost of child care is roughly $10,000 a year per child, which is nearly twice what the government considers affordable. This is why so many families are struggling, and why some are forced to survive on one income.

“It’s not easy to do. Children are constantly growing and eating and changing, and there’s so many needs that change daily for children; it’s hard to keep up when you’re on one income,” Alvord explained.

Alvord is going to continue looking for affordable child care so she can return to work and help pay the bills. But at the current costs, she says that might not happen for another 18 months – when Madison can start kindergarten.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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