When my son was born in September 2017, I had no doubt what we were going to do for childcare, and that’s because we had few choices. There were only a handful of options for childcare centers near my home in Golden, and most had lengthy waitlists. We got in line early, months before we were due, and yet we were told it would be at least a year, maybe more, until a spot could possibly open up.

So we opted to hire an in-home nanny—a luxury that came with a greater price tag but that quelled at least some of my anxieties as a full-time working parent. It was a short-lived plan; six months later, as our nanny prepared to move out of state, we found ourselves again pleading with local childcare providers to find a spot. The week before our nanny was to take off for California, we were finally offered a place in a center about 15 minutes away from our home. We took it. Our son has been at childcare centers ever since and has thrived. That is, until March 2020, when COVID-19 rode air droplets into the state. I was seven months into a high-risk pregnancy with my daughter at the time; I was terrified about contracting a potentially deadly virus. So we, like countless other families across the state and country, pulled our son from a school we had begged to get into.

Like many things these days, COVID-19 has exacerbated Colorado’s existing childcare crunch, as families struggle to find affordable, reliable, and safe care for their children. According to 2019 research from the Colorado Health Institute and the Colorado Office of Early Childhood, nearly 39,000 children under the age of five did not have the childcare their families needed. And clearly, my family isn’t alone in struggling to secure a spot at a childcare center; the report also found that there were not enough licensed childcare providers to serve infants and toddlers in the state; only one-third of families who preferred to send their young children to licensed childcare centers were doing so when the survey was taken. “For a long time, there has not been enough childcare for families who need it,” says Meg Franko, director of research and policy at Early Milestones Colorado, a nonprofit that focuses on improving policies and practices for early childhood development. “It’s expensive to take care of infants and toddlers, so those slots are even fewer and farther between. And that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

In June, Early Milestones, in partnership with the Bell Policy Center, released a report on the impact of COVID-19 on early childhood care and education providers. It found that, despite the fact that childcare centers were designated as essential businesses at the start of the crisis, nearly 10 percent of those facilities have closed since March. Suzanne Delap, research and policy fellow for Early Milestones, says the closures can be attributed to reduced enrollment—for children under five, enrollment has decreased by nearly 40 percent, while it’s dipped by almost 30 percent for school-age children. “What we found is that parents were afraid to bring their children back. Without the enrollments, there really wasn’t revenue, and so, [many] providers indicated that they were forced to either temporarily stop operating or they were worried they would have to in the future,” Delap says, adding that increased operating costs and an overarching uncertainty over how long the pandemic would last only compounded the situation.

In the absence of these childcare options, parents have been left searching for alternatives or caring for their children at home, either while simultaneously working or after having decided to leave the workforce. Franko says she anticipated a shift to “informal” care networks, such as family, friends, and neighbors, but that wasn’t revealed in the research. Instead, she says parents were mostly going it alone. “About a third of parents who have kids under five—at least as of the summer—were taking care of the kids themselves or their young children,” Franko says. “Whereas, normally in their preferred arrangement that would be about 18 percent. Similarly for school-aged kids, about 40 percent of parents were taking care of the kids themselves, whereas normally that would be about 23 percent.”

Some families have shifted to hiring in-home nannies to help—an option that is often cost-prohibitive—but Franko said that Early Milestones’ report found that fewer families were able to secure this type of care than those who said it was their preferred arrangement. Still, for those who can afford it, the market for qualified nannies is competitive, even if it looks a bit different than it did pre-COVID. Ginger Swift, owner of Denver-based ABC Nannies, an agency that pairs childcare workers with families for a fee, says that while at the beginning of the pandemic people were nervous about having caretakers in their homes, working parents soon realized that they couldn’t afford to not hire them. “Now they’re having conversations about [risk tolerance],” Swift says. “What are you doing to keep safe? Are we in the same bubble? And are we going to stay in this bubble until this is over?”

In addition to its usual screening methods, which include background checks, interviews, and reference checks, ABC Nannies is now helping to facilitate these difficult conversations by utilizing a risk-tolerance scale developed by the Association of Premier Nanny Agencies. When working with ABC Nannies, families and caregivers both determine where they are on the six-point scale—from very strict to very open—which helps the service make an appropriate match.

Swift says that while the company was projecting a year of growth in 2020—the business has increased every year for the past 26 years—instead she feels grateful that her company has remained relatively flat. While some areas, like sitter services for both in-home care and events like weddings, have drastically decreased (for obvious reasons), other parts of the business are booming—especially part-time placements, which include caretakers who are overseeing remote learning or facilitating educational pods. “Families are afraid to commit to too long of a commitment, because they don’t know when things are going to change or when their kids will go back to school,” Swift says. “So instead of hiring a nanny for a year, which is most of our placements, people are wanting to hire a nanny for three months or six months. And people are wanting to hire a nanny for four hours a day.”

Families who can afford to hire a nanny can find one—it just takes time and money (Swift says average rates hover between $18 and $25 per hour for nannies, depending on area and experience, and can reach up to $50 per hour for in-home, private educators). But with nearly 50 percent of Colorado households experiencing reduced income due to the pandemic, Franko notes that for many families, any form of childcare is currently out of reach. “Parents even more now cannot afford to pay additional for childcare, when many families are losing jobs or are having a reduction in income,” Franko says. “And that’s far worse for families of color, and second-language families.”

For providers, there may be some relief in sight. In December’s special legislative session, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill to provide $45 million in aid to childcare centers, in effort to help them keep their doors open or even expand as the pandemic continues. As for families, the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program provides subsidies for those who qualify. Franko also recommends that families connect with their local Child Care Resource and Referral agencies, which create and update databases of available resources.

But the overall cost of childcare in Colorado is not likely to change anytime soon. Even before COVID-19, the expense far exceeded the amount of money people have to spend on it. According to 2019 data from the Economic Policy Institute, Colorado ranks eighth in the United States for the most expensive infant care. “A slot for a year for an infant was, on average, more than a year of college, but you didn’t have 18 years to save up for it,” Franko says. “It was and still is a huge chunk of people’s income. For a minimum wage worker, it would take 30 to 33 weeks of their pay to afford a year of infant care.”

So what is a working family to do in the middle of a pandemic? There is no easy answer. As for my family, we took advantage of an opening at my son’s childcare center and sent him back for his first year of preschool in late August, just as I returned to work from maternity leave. For our infant daughter, we chose part-time, in-home care. To say that these arrangements are a financial strain on our family is a gross understatement, but we know this is what’s best for our family, so we’re trying to make it work—at least for now. However, so many Colorado families do not have these options, and with the pandemic following us into the new year, experts fear that a continued lack of affordable childcare options will not only be a drag on the state’s economic recovery, but will push even more people, especially women, out of the workforce.

If one positive thing comes from all this, it’s that the longtime struggle of Colorado families to secure and afford childcare is now out in the open, which can hopefully be a driver for change. It may be too late for the guardians of the COVID-19 generation, but if we can improve this essential need for the future families of our children, it will be worth it.

Erin Skarda
Erin Skarda
Erin is a Denver-based writer and the former digital editor for 5280.