PROVINCETOWN — Jennifer Cortes is just the type of person policymakers have been trying to get to live in town for years: she’s a 2003 Provincetown High School graduate who returned to raise her three children. She works as a registered nurse at the Outer Cape’s only nursing home, Seashore Point Wellness & Rehab Center.
Cortes can live in her hometown because of affordable housing. She has lived at Stable Path, built by Community Housing Resource, for years. And she works at Seashore Point full-time because of Wee Care, Provincetown’s free child-care program, which provided an affordable, safe place for her two younger children. Town meeting voters in 2018 elected to provide free care from birth to kindergarten to residents and town employees in order to attract and keep young families here.
But in March, schools and child-care centers closed because of the coronavirus, just as Cortes’s job as a nurse got even busier.
“I never stopped working through all this,” Cortes said. “Originally, I went back days because my kids were in Wee Care.” She was able to come out ahead in terms of earning more than what her child-care costs would have been. “But then, they shut down Wee Care and the preschool, and my schedule didn’t change,” she said.
Now, most schools have reopened at least partially, as have some child-care centers. But not the toddler program operated by the Provincetown Schools. Supt. Suzanne Scallion has kept it closed because toddlers, ranging from children who’ve just begun walking up to age three, cannot be expected to wear masks and stay socially distanced. Cortes’s two-year-old has nowhere to go.
“I understand, but it’s created a really big child-care gap,” said Cortes.
Cortes faces a dilemma common to parents and employers all over the country. The pandemic has emphasized just how critical child care is to the economy.
Wendy Northcross, head of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said that when the economy began to reopen in June, she heard immediately from business owners that the single biggest barrier to reopening was a lack of child care for their staff.
Meanwhile, Barnstable County’s Dept. of Health and Human Services Deputy Director Vaira Harik said most public health experts are recommending that health-care workers and nursing home residents get first access to Covid-19 vaccinations. Her department wants child-care workers to be added to that list.
The juggling of work, spotty school openings, and scarce child care “has led to extraordinary stress among parents and kids,” Harik said.
Cortes’s particular need for child care and affordable housing is proof of what state Sen. Julian Cyr described as an acute problem for people trying to raise children here.
“Even prior to the pandemic, access to child care and the costs of child care were a significant barrier for those families who are already housing burdened,” he said.
To help the situation, Provincetown is about to roll out a child-care voucher program. This would allow families with toddlers previously enrolled in Provincetown’s early childhood program to use vouchers to pay for care at a licensed child-care facility. Baily Boyd Associates provides child-care grants for low- and moderate-income families as well.
The problem there, however, is a lack of such child-care centers in this area. The Cape Cod Children’s Place, in Eastham, cut its enrollment in half to allow for social distancing.
Nola Glatzel, owner of a year-old licensed child-care center in Truro, has only six spots and she’s full.
Cortes said, “I finally found a sitter, but I want to compensate her for the amount of work she is doing.” She urged the select board to consider allowing her to use the voucher money for her sitter.
Glatzel, who is 30 and grew up in Provincetown, decided to reopen her Earthstar Play School in September, knowing there was a risk. But her service plays such a vital role that Glatzel felt compelled to try. She first studied the successes and lack of outbreaks at the other child-care centers. She said she has had no Covid-19 cases among her client families to date.
“I wear a mask, and children wear masks if they are ready to,” she said. “There is obviously a risk, but parents have to go back to work and I wanted to open.”
When Rudelle Falkenberg closed her legendary Storybook School in Truro, friends and relatives told Glatzel, with her degree in early childhood education, that she could really fill a void.
Then two of her childhood friends, Zach Luster and Edwige Yingling, offered to renovate the walkout basement of their Truro home to create a space for Glatzel’s school.
“When they said they’d be willing to do that, all the pieces fell into place,” Glatzel said.
The voucher program in Provincetown will help her, she said, as well as many families. She thinks it’s a model that Truro should consider. Wellfleet and Eastham already offer child-care vouchers to residents.