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Day care, already in short supply, becomes scarcer during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has deepened an already acute shortage of child-care options in Boston, especially in neighborhoods with more Latino residents, a new report has found.

Researchers and experts said they worry the financial struggles of child-care providers will compound economic inequalities, both for parents who rely on affordable child care to work and for their children, whose lack of access to crucial development opportunities may have long-term consequences.

With more children staying home, because of COVID fears or because their families cannot afford day care, child-care providers who have long operated on razor-thin margins, are struggling to retain and pay their staff, and expressed concern over whether child-care providers can remain in business during the pandemic or beyond.

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“It’s a workforce that is undervalued in terms of their pay, in terms of the learning opportunities that are available to them. I think that previous to the pandemic, people didn’t really understand what a benefit it is to have an early childhood education workforce,” said Kristin McSwain, executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a public-private partnership focused on education that published the new report.

Across the city, the number of available spots for children fell by 2,124 seats, or about 14 percent, between March and September, including both center-based and family child-care programs, the report’s authors found.

The losses have not been felt evenly across the city. Since 2017, East Boston has lost more than one-third of its available slots for children up to 5 years old. In Allston and Brighton, nearly 32 percent of seats for children in that age group no longer exist.

In the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, wealthier areas with lower concentrations of young children, seats have fallen by only 1 percent.

Some financial support and policy changes from the city and state have helped child-care providers stay in business and shoulder growing costs, said Justin Pasquariello, executive director of East Boston Social Centers. But retaining employees, many of whom are parents themselves and worry about being infected with the coronavirus, has been a challenge.

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“Our teachers, who are on the front lines and taking on a lot of risk, many of them could make more money working in individual households," Pasquariello said. “And so recruitment and retention have been very challenging at this time.”

In East Boston, Sonja Tengblad said she has enjoyed spending more time with her 3-year-old son, Soren, but it’s been difficult to juggle his care with her work as a voice teacher. Soren was recently offered a spot in a neighborhood day-care program, but since Tengblad and her husband are both working part time, they can’t afford to send him.

So far, Soren is doing well at home — he’s learning about letters and curious about passing trains and kids playing soccer in the park. But like other parents, Tengblad said she worries about the long-term effects of social isolation.

“I am really concerned for his development,” Tengblad said. “So many of my parent circles, we all laugh at, ‘Wow, there’s gonna be a whole generation of really messed up kids, just not getting the interaction they need.' "

Jaqueline Alejandra Sanchez, who has been staying home with her 3-year-old daughter, Kaylen, said the cost day care made it infeasible. One program quoted her a price of $250 a week, which would not would not include care if she needed to work overtime or weekends.

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Sanchez and her daughter have been participating in remote playgroups run by Countdown to Kindergarten, which she said have helped “teach, educate, and bring joy” to her daughter. But she said she wished policy makers would think about parents like her.

“I would like to see them consider care that is accessible for mothers who have to work,” she said.

It’s hard to say definitively what happens to families who lose local child-care providers, said Jess Carson, a research assistant professor at the Vulnerable Families Research Program in the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. Some may find another day care, or turn to a family member or neighbor. But those who cannot, especially families already struggling financially, may see economic advancement slip further from their grasp.

“The implication is that those families cannot live up to their earning potential. And simultaneously, children cannot access that array of opportunities,” Carson said. “Loss of income for families, particularly when children are young, is really impactful in negative ways. It is correlated with food insecurity, with housing instability.”

That may reinforce existing inequalities, she said.

“There are a lot of people, and a lot of organizations, who are having to figure this out, for better for worse . . . on their own,” Carson said. “There should be a better coordinated system at the state and the federal level for this.”

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If child-care seats permanently disappear, the burden of caring for young children will likely fall — as it has already during the pandemic — predominantly on women, said Tania Del Rio, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement in Boston. Nationwide, about 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce between August and September, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis. That included about 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women.

“That’s our fear. It would mean that women would disproportionately stop working, or reduce their hours,” Del Rio said. “We could go back to the place where women were decades ago in terms of labor participation.”

Globe Correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.