Desperate parents call Books & Bibs Childcare and Learning Academy every day in hopes of enrolling their little ones into child care.

The center, which has two locations, has the physical space to take more children, but not the staff. Owner Stephanie Gray said she would like to enroll more children and run at full capacity, but she can’t find enough workers.

Books & Bibs’ struggle reflects the challenges facing the child care industry across Bexar County, which has lost roughly 20% of its child care centers since the pandemic began, exacerbating a shortage of high-quality and affordable care that existed even before the coronavirus reshaped how centers operate.

Many of the centers that remain are now struggling to hire enough teachers and support staff, even as demand rises, leaving working parents scrambling to find placement for their children at a price they can afford.

That can mean care far from where a family lives, or choosing unregulated care, which comes with its own risks. 

Officials with the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, which offers grant funding and other types of support for local child care centers, said the child care landscape, already a difficult one with licensing and regulations designed to keep children safe and razor-thin margins that keep wages low, is now even more difficult to navigate.

Child care deserts

According to Children at Risk, a Texas nonprofit that works to quantify child poverty and inequality in an effort to improve those conditions, Bexar County lost 236 child care providers between March 2020 and September 2021, displacing thousands of children. Today 862 child care operations remain in Bexar County.

Children at Risk compiles its data from many agencies, including the Census Bureau and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates child care providers in the state.

Children at Risk CEO Bob Sanborn said that in the early stages of the pandemic, huge numbers of early education and day care centers shut down. Today, many of those that remain open are struggling.

Parents are faced with not only finding child care centers that are open and nearby, but finding high-quality centers they can afford.

“A lot of moms and dads, and it’s especially hard on moms, are not returning to the workforce, because they don’t have a place to put their kids,” said Sanborn.

Children at Risk calculates that the loss of child care providers in Bexar County has increased what it calls “child care deserts,” which it defines as an area with zero to five child care seats per 100 children of working parents. It has identified 23 zip codes it considers child care deserts in Bexar County.

Options for subsidized child care are even fewer; Children at Risk identified 39 “subsidy child care deserts,” meaning those areas do not offer access to affordable child care — that is, covered by scholarships or grants to low-income families.

The nonprofit also breaks out what it calls “high-quality” child care deserts — these are zip codes that have no centers certified as Texas Rising Star, a quality rating and improvement system for early childhood programs administered by the Texas Workforce Commission.

“A high-quality childcare desert [means] you’re in a low-income area, and you have access to childcare, but you don’t have access to high-quality childcare,” said Children at Risk’s director of early childhood education Kim Kofron.

Roughly one-third of low-income Bexar County families live in subsidized and high-quality child care deserts. That’s fewer than the statewide average of 53% of families living in subsidized care deserts, and 86% who live in high-quality care deserts, according to Children at Risk.

Unregulated care on the rise

In Bexar County, according to Children at Risk data, if every parent chose to enroll their child into a child care center, almost half of local children would not have child care seats available to them. Of course, some parents do not need child care, but for those who do, there are 57 seats for every hundred children who need it.

The higher that number the better, said Kofron. It doesn’t need to be 100 seats per 100 children, “but we do want it to be set in a way to make sure [parents] have the choices they really want,” she said. 

The shortage of care means some parents — often mothers — are not re-entering the workforce, while others rely on family members, or some version of “the nice lady down the street” for child care, which is classified as unregulated care.

That care comes with its own risks, including neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse or being cared for by someone with a mental health or substance use disorder. Such adverse childhood experiences can actually change the brain development of children, resulting in long-term physical and behavioral health problems.

Unregulated child care operations have been on the rise in Region 8, which includes Bexar County, a spokeswoman for HHS said this week. She confirmed that pandemic-related closures and staffing shortages are currently the biggest challenges facing the region.

Books & Bibs’ Commerce Street location on the city’s East Side has the capacity for 118 children, but only 73 are currently enrolled, because of staffing issues. At the Books & Bibs on Montgomery Place on the Northeast Side, the facility can hold up to 92 children, but only 40 are enrolled.

Keoni Keno, a teacher at the Books & Bibs Child Care and Learning Academy, plays with children on Wednesday.
Keoni Keno, a teacher at Books & Bibs Child Care and Learning Academy’s Commerce Street location, plays with children at the center on Wednesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Nonprofit support

Child care centers have always run lean operations, said Liza Gomez, director of education initiatives at the United Way, but the current labor shortage means those who might have once applied for positions that typically pay between $11 and $17 an hour, according to recent job postings on Indeed, are now finding better pay and benefits in other industries.

However, offering more competitive wages means charging parents higher fees, which is difficult in a region that already has many parents struggling to afford child care, said Gomez.

The United Way in January began a $180,000 one-year pilot to boost the wages of daycare staff at one center on the East Side from $9 to $12 an hour up to $15 to $18 an hour to study the effects these higher wages could have on the quality of care and the well-being of educators.

The pilot has already influenced change, Gomez said: the center’s 116% turnover staff rate during the pandemic has already been “drastically reduced.”

But it’s unclear how the nonprofit might be able to scale the pilot up to help more centers pay higher wages. A United Way spokesman said the results of the study would “inform our next steps.”

The United Way helps in others ways, too. It runs a mentoring program, the Building Quality Initiative, that assigns experienced coaches from partner organizations to work with smaller centers located in some of the county’s child care deserts, helping them do the work necessary to earn quality certifications like Texas Rising Star.

“Our goal at United Way is to provide access to quality [care] for children in Bexar County and San Antonio,” said Gomez. “But to do that, we have to look at every facet of the child care center, including staffing, operations [and] ongoing support, even when they do reach quality — that’s what our goals are here.”

State support could help

United Way’s efforts are funded by donations raised within the community, while child care subsidies come almost exclusively from the federal government. Sanborn said the state of Texas must step up and offer its own support for struggling centers.

Right now, he said, the Texas Workforce Commission’s child care budget “is almost entirely made up of child care subsidy money,” passed through from the federal government, rather than from the state.

United Way and other nonprofits’s role in helping child care centers regain their footing is critical, Sanborn said, but they can’t be the only solution. He urged Texas leaders to expand support for child care, which he pointed out would help fuel the economy by allowing parents to get back to work.

Texas leaders “have yet to put their own Texas funding into early education, even though we all understand it’s very important for the success of the workplace,” said Sanborn.

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. A 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, her work has been recognized by the Texas Managing Editors. She previously worked...