One-third of N.C. childcare programs still closed as parents need to return to work

Three weeks after North Carolina entered the first phase of its reopening process, one-third of all childcare programs in the state remained closed, according to survey data provided by the NC Partnership for Children.

These persistent childcare closures are a concern as more North Carolinians return to work, with fewer care options available for our state’s youngest children and fewer jobs to go back to for the people — primarily women — who work in early childhood education.

As of May 29, counties across the state continued to experience high closure rates among childcare providers, particularly in western and rural areas. Twenty-nine counties had closure rates of 50% or higher, including Cherokee (88%), Clay (86%), Polk (80%), and Jackson (78%).

Closure rates vary according to program type and program quality. Forty-one percent of childcare centers remain closed, compared to only 7% of family childcare homes. A majority of five-star facilities – the highest rating issued by the NC Division of Child Development and Early Education – remain closed, while the vast majority of one- and two-star facilities are open.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures throughout the state, nearly half of all North Carolinians lived in a childcare desert, with more than three young children competing for every available childcare space. The current public health crisis has made clear what was always true: The childcare industry is a core feature of the infrastructure of North Carolina’s well-being and educational attainment. Many providers remained open at the outset of the pandemic – even operating at a loss – to provide care for the children of essential workers.

If policymakers hope to see the state’s economy up and running again soon, preventing the permanent closure of early childhood programs must be the highest priority in the General Assembly. With persistent closures across the state and many providers concerned about their ability to access cleaning supplies and protective equipment, the stabilization of the childcare industry must be at the forefront of any recovery strategy. The availability of childcare programs is crucial for parents’ ability to return to work, the strength of the state’s post-COVID economy, and the safety and well-being of the very youngest North Carolinians.

Sally Hodges-Copple is an intern with the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

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