The pandemic worsened Boston’s already acute child-care shortage, with lower-income neighborhoods hit the hardest, according to a report by the Boston Opportunity Agenda.
The loss of quality child care presents an additional burden for working families as they try to recover from the economic blow caused by the shutdown.
The supply of child-care seats fell by an average of 16 percent between March and September 2020, according to the report. East Boston and Brighton lost the largest number of seats, at around 30 percent. Back Bay and Beacon Hill lost a little over 1 percent of their seats.
Child-care opportunities have been dwindling since 2017, and the pandemic exacerbated the problem. Recovery has been slow, with only 28 licensed programs reopening between last November and March.
Boston had 682 full-time licensed day-care programs when the pandemic forced them all to close down. Some began reopening over the summer of 2020, and by September, 573 of the programs had reopened.
As the number of programs drops, so does the number of available licensed slots for children. Those seats dwindled from 15,548 at the beginning of the pandemic to 13,424 by last September. The number has crept up only to 14,177 as of March, according to the report, “Boston’s Child-Care Supply Crisis: The Continued Impact of a Pandemic.”
The report also found eight of Boston’s 15 neighborhoods saw declines of more than 10 percent in seats for infants and toddlers. And nine neighborhoods saw the same declines in seats for 3- to 5-year-olds.
“While the exact shape of the post-pandemic recovery is still emerging, we do know there will be fewer seats available for parents returning to the office, and some of the greatest losses have been in neighborhoods where parents have the most limited options for affordable, licensed care even before the pandemic,” said Kristin McSwain, executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a public-private partnership focused on Boston’s cradle-to-career pipeline.
Most striking, McSwain said, was the miniscule rate of recovery from last November’s 86 percent to March’s 88 percent. “We had hoped to see more of the centers that had not reopened reopening and we do not see that,” McSwain said.
The rate of licensed programs reopening in Allston, Brighton, Roslindale, and West Roxbury was even more dismal, at closer to 77 percent, the latest report showed.
A recent survey by the City of Boston found that more than one-quarter of stay-at-home parents, the vast majority of them women, couldn’t work because they lacked day care. Nearly 60 percent of those parents cited cost as the biggest obstacle, and parents of children under 2 had the hardest time finding available slots.
McSwain predicts that 13 percent of the licensed programs are permanently lost.
“We do not have a good understanding of the why,” McSwain said. “We just know that there are a number that have closed permanently and then there are a number of those that have not filed an intent to reopen,” she said.
It’s likely, McSwain said, that some of the programs were operating at such close margins that they couldn’t afford to reopen. Others, she said, may have been unable to find staffing to reopen.
Families with children 5 and younger already were facing wait lists and dwindling numbers of seats year after year. They now have even fewer options. Boston’s total number of seats for this age group stands at 14,177 — that’s 1,400 fewer than pre-pandemic, according to the report.
“I think what it adds up to for parents is, as people go back to work full time, in person, they are going to have a harder time, depending on the neighborhood they live in, finding care for their children,” McSwain said.
The report also spotlights a significant decrease in developmental screening and the number of children receiving early intervention services.
“When young children are in high-quality programs, they are more likely to succeed in school, graduate, have a job, own a home, maintain relationships, have better health outcomes and ensure a better start for the next generation,” the report said.
Most neighborhoods saw declines in the number of eligible children referred to early intervention, with the steepest drops, as high as 25 percent, in central Boston, Roxbury, and Hyde Park.
The decline in the number of children actually receiving services was often greater than the decline in the number of children referred. Hyde Park, Roslindale, and West Roxbury all experienced a 56 percent drop in children receiving services.
As for those children who did receive services, they saw a drop from an average of 22 hours per month to five hours, primarily done virtually rather than in person.