Boston – A new analysis by the Boston Opportunity Agenda finds that the COVID-19 pandemic exacted an unfortunate toll on the city’s already-strained childcare system, resulting in significant losses of licensed childcare programs and a sharp decrease in the number of children being screened for or receiving early intervention services.
The study, Boston’s Child-Care Supply Crisis: The Continued Impact of a Pandemic, was sponsored by the Opportunity Agenda’s Birth to Eight Collaborative. It found that as of March 2021 Boston had permanently lost 13 percent of its family and center-based care providers compared with before the pandemic. The system had already seen a contraction in the number of centers and early childcare seats available for children 0-5, leading to significant wait lists and challenges for parents and providers alike.
“The data are a sobering confirmation of the sense early childcare advocates already had – that the pandemic took a significant toll on early childcare centers and providers,” said Kristin McSwain, the Executive Director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda. “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.”
Data show that between December 2017 and March 2020, Boston has a net loss of about 440 childcare seats for 0-5 year-olds. After a loss of more than 2,000 seats in the beginning months of the pandemic, some centers and family-based providers have reopened in 2021– but the city’s total of 14,177 seats is nearly 1,400 fewer than at the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 1,800 fewer than existed less than four years ago.
Expanded universal pre-kindergarten in Boston may help cushion the loss of more than 1,400 seats for 3-5 year-olds in licensed settings, but the loss of nearly 400 seats for 0-2 year-olds during the pandemic could provide significant challenges for parents seeking to return to work as the economy reopens.
Just three Boston neighborhoods, as defined by the brief, – Back Bay/Beacon Hill, South Boston and West Roxbury – have seen an increase in seats for 0-2 year-olds since December 2017. Only Back Bay/Beacon Hill and Mattapan saw an increase in seats for 3-5 year-olds. On the flip side, eight of Boston’s 15 neighborhoods saw declines of more than 10 percent in seats for 0-2 year-olds, and nine neighborhoods lost more than 10 percent of their slots for 3-5 year-olds. (Neighborhood by neighborhood charts are available in the report.)
Another pandemic casualty – early interventions
One impact of the decline in early childcare is a parallel reduction in the number of children screened for referral to Early Intervention and other supports. Citywide data from the DRIVE database hosted by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley on the implementation of the Ages & Stages Questionnaire, a developmental screening tool used by family support organizations and center-based childcare, show a 15 percent decrease in the total number of screens when comparing March 2019–March 2020 to March 2020–March 2021.
As a result of the decline in testing, 12 percent fewer children were referred for Early Intervention services between February 2020 and February 2021, and more alarming – 40 percent fewer children received Early Interventions. In Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale, Roxbury and West Roxbury, the number of children receiving Early Interventions fell by more than half, and children who did receive services got far fewer hours of intervention. One possible explanation for the declines – intervention services were forced by the pandemic to be fully remote, making them inaccessible for many families.
The report is the centerpiece of efforts by the Opportunity Agenda’s Birth to Eight Collaborative to raise awareness of the challenges facing child care providers and parents in Boston and statewide. The report lists a series of policy recommendations for stabilizing and improving the system, and comes just after the Collaborative sent a series of recommendations to be endorsed by Boston’s mayoral candidates.