When Lexy Close found out she was pregnant in August 2018, she thought she wouldn’t have any problems finding daycare for her son.
She began considering daycare options in December before she realized there weren’t any available.
“I felt that being five, six months pregnant was a reasonable time to start thinking about childcare,” she said. ” I started calling around and everyone had a waitlist or they had even given up their waitlist, they weren’t even taking more people on their waitlist because it was so long.”
Her first choice, Mother Goose Day School, estimated that her son, Oscar, would have a spot in January – about a year-long wait from the time she put her name on the list. Oscar will be 8 months old before a spot opens.
Oscar was born in May, and Close had to reshuffle her life in lieu of a daycare option. She works from home now, and with the help of friends and family, is able to take care of Oscar until a spot opens for him to go to daycare.
Until she began looking for daycare for infants, though, she didn’t know that finding childcare would be so difficult.
“The moment you find out you’re pregnant, you need to get on a list if it’s an 11-month wait period,” she said. “Nine months, and that’s assuming you have two months of maternity leave.
“There’s some solutions that need to come from the state level, the local level, I think everyone needs to be working on this.”
The effects of childcare shortage are felt in day care facilities across the region. Karen Riddle, director of Johnson City Kidz Clubhouse, said she gets daily requests for infant spots at her facility.
She said parents tell her about daycare centers closing in the region, and they’re looking for a place to care for their children during work hours.
She said her waiting list is so long that she doesn’t know how many names are on it.
About 80 percent of those on her list are for infant care.
“A lot of (parents) that call me tell me, ‘That’s what all daycares are telling me,’ That there’s no spot, that there’s a waiting list,” Riddle said. “I hear that at least five times a day.”
The state Department of Human Services defines an infant as a child between the ages of 6 weeks old and 1 year old. The department’s policies establish that a licensed child care facility may have no more than four infants per adult.
Johnson City Kidz Clubhouse currently has four infant slots because of the ratio requirements. Riddle said the current infants at her care center are between six and eight weeks old, so it could be almost a year before she has another spot open.
“(Parents) ask me when they call and get put on the waiting list, ‘Do you know when?’ And, honestly, I don’t know,” Riddle said. “Because if the ones I have stay, I can’t move them until they’re 12 months old.”
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The issue isn’t just in Johnson City – Tim Jaynes, the Executive Director for the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency, said childcare shortage is a national issue.
The bottom line, he said, is that there’s just a bigger demand for childcare than there are resources. He estimated that in places like Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, only about 50 percent of the demand for child care are met.
“Then you get out into the rural areas, you get out into the other counties, that demand is even higher, it creates a major issue,” adding that some counties, like Hancock County, don’t even have child care centers.
“We’re not sure why – it is a combination of more people in the workforce as far as less stay-at-home moms, there’s more back into the workforce, we’re seeing less daycare centers than there used to be because, one, the regulations are strict, also the fact that it’s expensive.”
There’s not a clear answer in sight, he said.
“It’s not a one-solution fix, it’s a multiple solution – each county, each community and each city has their own unique set of problems that that creates and that that solves.”
Jaynes said alternatives could include working with employers to develop childcare through the workplace. Government assistance could help, he said, but it wouldn’t be a long-term solution.
Infant care gets hit hard because of the 4:1 ratio requirement, he added, and the fact that can be expensive for daycares to accommodate.
Riddle said regulations allow mixed-age groups for children between the ages of 6 weeks and 30 months, but that only bumps the ratio up to five children per teacher.
And then space becomes another barrier, as state regulations also require groups of infants to have their own distinct space – 30 square feet per child.
“I think it’s great to put them in a daycare center setting to let them learn socialization skills, to build up their immune system,” Riddle said. “But you might be better off to find a personal babysitter for a little while until you can get into the daycare center.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated that Hawkins County doesn’t have any childcare facilities. It has been corrected to state that Hancock County doesn’t have any such facilities.