A dozen children sit on Chris Nelson’s waitlist. Their families hope a seat will open up in the child care program she runs out of her home in rural Vermont.
Some of them could stay on the list for years: most of the children who pass through Nelson’s doors stay in the program until they age out at 13. And where Nelson lives in Troy, Vermont, a town of less than 2,000 residents on the Canadian border, there are only two center-based child care providers that serve a total of 33 kids. Lately, they are always full, said Nelson, who has one part-time employee and is licensed to care for 10 children.
In rural communities, it’s common for families to have to cobble together child care. That could mean a parent working one half of the day while a spouse works the other half. It could mean a family sending the youngest child to a relative’s house until the oldest gets home from school. Transportation and the time it takes to get to a child care provider are often a burden for parents living in remote towns, Nelson said.
“Because you’re rural, people have to drive that much farther to get to you, and, in fact, their jobs,” Nelson said.
Advocates for in-home child care believe expanding and investing in programs like Nelson’s could be a solution, particularly for rural areas, where many families already use informal child care because of fewer centers.
“You can’t build a functional business model for a center in a very sparsely populated place, right? It’s too costly to transport kids there and you need to have enough demand to justify building a center,” said Natalie Renew, director of Home Grown, an organization that raises money and advocates for in-home centers. “So, often in rural communities, you’ll find a network of home-based child care providers, because that’s just a more feasible business model and meets the needs of families in those communities.”
Long before the pandemic, there was a gap between the number of families who needed child care and accessible providers in communities across the country, including rural areas, many of which qualify as ‘child care deserts.’ The industry had already been struggling with affordability while remaining viable on thin profit margins. But with schools closing sporadically because of Covid-19 and centers shutting down because of staffing shortages, the child care scarcity has erupted into a full-blown crisis across rural and urban communities as the U.S. enters its third year of coping with the virus.
The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates there are about 111,000 fewer child care jobs in December of 2021 than there were when the pandemic started in 2020. One study done by researchers at Columbia University estimates that nearly three-quarters of child care centers closed because of Covid-19 in April 2020, and about one-third remained closed a year later.
In rural areas, where families often have different needs and fewer options than larger cities, in-home child care providers can be a more flexible choice.
But there are also challenges to increasing the number of in-home child care programs and improving their quality. It is more complicated for states to regulate child care programs in homes versus centers, and the rules vary across the country.
For example, Mississippi’s State Department of Health lists 43 home-based providers registered for the entire state. Vermont, another primarily rural state with a much smaller population, has 10 times that number of registered providers. But Vermont requires residents to register with the state if they provide child care for more than two families, while Mississippi allows residents to take care of a maximum of five unrelated children before they must register.
“The short answer as to why it’s different everywhere is that the federal child care law doesn’t say it has to be the same everywhere,” said Mary Beth Testa, policy advisor for the National Association for Family Child Care.
The lack of uniformity is one reason some families prefer centers to figuring out which homes provide high quality care. If child care programs are licensed through the state, they are required to follow basic health and safety requirements and receive inspections throughout the year, which are published in reports that can be obtained by parents.
In Watertown, New York, Hartley Bonisteel Schweitzer is experiencing a child care crisis, with three young children and another on the way in a month. Schweitzer’s semi-rural town is big enough to host its nearby military base of 15,000 service members. There are about a dozen grocery stores and a small airport, but only half a dozen child care centers in good standing with the state.
Despite their need for care, Schweitzer is wary of sending her children to an in-home child care provider. She’s worried about the quality of care they might receive, and the idea of leaving her children in a stranger’s home versus a center makes her uneasy.
“I know a lot of them kind of run under the radar, so to speak,” Schweitzer said. “I’m not necessarily a super worrywart in terms of things for my kids, but I am just not so sure I want my kids to be in that situation full-time.”
Her concern is a common one for parents. A study published by the Society for Research and Child Development in 2016 found that children who attended preschools and formal childcare centers were better prepared for school than children who were cared for in homes.
That study did not distinguish between professional in-home providers, babysitters and other informal child care settings, which are important distinctions, Testa said.
“What an occasional neighbor is doing is really important and really helpful and not the same as what goes on in a program with a curriculum and funding and a trained and supported provider,” Testa said, the latter of which can occur in professional home programs.
But the negative perceptions still exist and dropping a child off at someone’s home can be deeply personal, for the parent and the provider. For a rural parent with no other options, it is often the only choice. There were more than one million paid, unlicensed in-home providers and more than 91,000 licensed in-home providers in the U.S. in 2019, according to the National Survey of Early Care and Education.
For Nelson, the intimate nature of a home-based center is one reason families choose to keep their children in the program for years.
“They have a primary caregiver their entire time, so that bond is there,” Nelson said.
Both Testa and Renew believe the sector can be improved with more state and federal investment in home-based centers, greater uniformity in regulations across states and better access to childcare training for in-home providers.
“Home-based child care is really under-appreciated, it’s under-investigated and it is severely under-resourced as a part of the early childhood sector,” Renew said. “We want to bring that same interest and curiosity and investment to this part of the sector, which also happens to be the part of the sector where the most marginalized and at-risk children and families are being served.”
This story about in-home child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.