Local families face tough daycare decisions due to shrinking short-term options

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Children at a daycare facility (stock photo)

Across Fairfax County, families have faced a challenging child care environment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the county’s plans to add more child care facilities and spaces in coming years.

According to data from Fairfax County Neighborhood & Community Services’ (NCS) Office for Children, the number of early childhood centers without school-age child care (SACC) throughout the county fell from 419 in March 2020 to 414 in July 2022, and the number of family child care homes (home-based child care providers) fell from 1,502 to 1,299 during that same time frame. Those statistics don’t reflect decreases in actual slots at daycare programs due to staffing shortages, COVID safety precautions or other issues; NCS doesn’t collect information on factors that might result in changes to center capacity, said communications director Cristin Bratt.

The county will soon have one fewer daycare center when Inova Mount Vernon Hospital (IMVH) closes its onsite child care provider, Bright Horizons at Inova Mount Vernon. According to an Inova spokesperson, the center will close on June 30, 2023 to enable the hospital to use the space for yet-to-be-determined clinical purposes and for patient care in the wake of growing patient volume and capacity challenges.

One of the learning spaces at Bright Horizons at Inova Mount Vernon (Credit: Bright Horizons virtual tour)

“We are glad we were able to provide child care for team members and the community inside Inova Mount Vernon Hospital for many years and hope to serve the healthcare needs of the Mount Vernon community now and in the future,” Inova said in a written statement.

Families were caught off guard by the pre-Thanksgiving letter they received with the news, which won’t affect Inova’s other child care facilities at Fairfax and Fair Oaks Hospitals.

“Devastating” and “heartbreaking” were just two words parents used to describe the impending shutdown of the IMVH daycare facility, which is located within the hospital, provides year-round child care services with extended hours for infants through pre-Kindergarten children, and is nearly at capacity with most of its 65 slots filled, according to a parent.

Jessica Kunkle and her husband are full-time civil servants with a three-year-old child at the center. She said they had felt safe enrolling their daughter at the daycare facility due to its strong health precautions and security measures, and had formed strong bonds with fellow families. The unexpected news about the facility’s shutdown came as an unpleasant shock. The lack of affordable, high-quality child care alternatives in the vicinity is a huge problem, according to Kunkle.

“Between the shortage of child care workers, years-long waitlists, soaring costs, reduced hours and the ravages of respiratory illnesses, parental burnout is worse than it’s ever been,” she said.

The timing of the IMVH daycare’s closure is particularly problematic for parents whose children will be starting Kindergarten in late August and thus won’t have easy access to child care coverage for the two preceding months, said Kunkle.

Outdoor play area at Bright Horizons at Inova Mount Vernon

One of those parents, Rachel McGlynn, said she already has switched her pre-Kindergarten child from the IMVH facility to a year-round preschool program in the Fort Hunt area. Now she’s trying to ensure that she isn’t double-billed for child care during the month of December since she had to accept the slot with the new program by December 5.

“Bright Horizons says I didn’t give them 30 days’ notice, so I have to pay the full amount,” said McGlynn. “I told them they broke the contract with us, so I had to make a choice and leave early.”

Bright Horizons has guaranteed the impacted IMVH daycare families a spot at another one of their centers in the region — including an Old Town Alexandria location — however, some families said they’ve soured on their relationship with the brand.

Describing communications with the company as “evasive” and “opaque,” parent Susan Grutza said she and her husband, both federal employees, are still weighing new daycare arrangements for their son and baby that’s due in March.

“It was our plan to send the baby to Bright Horizons, and now I don't know what we will do,” said Grutza. “Like everyone else, we will have to cobble together a solution until Kindergarten, burning through PTO and testing the flexibility of our managers.”

The common thread binding all three sets of parents is that they are employed outside of IMVH. According to Kunkle, only a handful of the parents with children attending Bright Horizons at Inova Mount Vernon actually work at the hospital. That factor — combined with the high local demand for clinical services — is what led IMVH to make the difficult decision to take over the child care space inside of the hospital, said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

According to NCS, the county has plans to develop new child care programs at the Original Mount Vernon High School (OMVHS), which will serve around 172 children. Plans are also in the works for a facility in Kingstowne serving 78 children and at the Hybla Valley Community Center serving between 75 to 100 children. The completion date for the facilities in Kingstowne and at OMVHS is in 2025, said Bratt, while the wrap-up date for the facility at Hybla Valley Community Center is still TBD.

A "before" photo and design renderings of the planned child care facility at the Original Mount Vernon High School (Credit: Fairfax County)

At present, just over a quarter of Fairfax County’s 1,713 total daycare facilities are located in Mount Vernon and Franconia Districts, county data show. As of mid-December 2022, Mount Vernon District had 39 non-SACC early childhood centers with a capacity for 3,948 children based on state licensing, and 164 family child care homes with a capacity for 1,148 children. Franconia District, meanwhile, had 27 early childhood centers with a capacity for 2,970 children, and 249 family child care homes with a capacity for 1,465 children.

As for Kunkle, she and her husband have toured five potential centers for their child and already ruled out two — one which she said had a concerning violation with the Virginia Department of Social Services and the other which struck them as overcrowded with 34 three-year-olds occupying a single room. Fifteen families were already on the waitlist for that room, said Kunkle. She and her spouse also are leaning against the Old Town Bright Horizons due to the long commute. That leaves a church-based preschool as their top option with a pricey Montessori school as back-up.

“We're tentatively planning to stay with the Bright Horizons at Inova Mount Vernon as long as we can,” said Kunkle. “But if we end up getting a spot at either of the other centers, we may leave earlier.”

NCS’ Bratt said that families seeking child care assistance in a specific location and with specific features should contact the Child Care Assistance and Referral Program and ask to speak to a child care specialist. Additionally, there are resources for parents available with the Virginia Department of Education Child Care VA and Child Care Aware of Virginia.

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