For working parents, snow days spur search for child care

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Children play a game together at the R. F. Wilksinson YMCA in Williamsburg Jan. 10.

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Williamsburg’s R. F. Wilkinson Family YMCA echoed with joyous shrieks and laughter Tuesday morning as about 20 school-aged children bounced basketballs and tossed footballs around the facility’s gymnasium.

Although a weekend snow storm cancelled school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the Historic Triangle, at least a couple dozen children still made it to the YMCA on Sentara Circle to participate in snow, pool and gym activities.

The reason the children were at the YMCA on a weekday: School might have been cancelled, but many parents still needed to go to work.

“It snows and people are still sick and they still need treatment,” said parent Joy Phelps, who works at Bon Secours Pediatric Dental Associates in Richmond. “[My husband and I] don’t work in places where we can bring our child, and we don’t have any family in town.”

Snow days are a coveted rite-of-passage for school-aged children. Several inches of snowfall, and children get an extra day to relax, play video games, watch their favorite movies or make crafts. Outdoors, they have a full day of recess, in which they can go sledding, make snow angels and build snow forts.

But snow days can be a burden for families who can’t afford to stay home with their children when school is cancelled.

To provide parents with a reasonably-priced child care option, the YMCA in Williamsburg has a snow day care program, where school-aged children can go if their parents have to work when school is cancelled.

“I think with schools, they have to think about the buses and when they can operate and if it’s safe to do so,” said Heather Springfield, senior program director at the YMCA. “But they can’t just close grocery stores or other offices where the parents might work. It gives parents peace of mind to drop their kid off here for the day, where we have trained staff.”

The program costs $19 per day – running from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. – for YMCA members, and $26 per day for non-members. During the day, the children go outside to play in the snow, play in the gym and go into the YMCA’s heated pool.

Parents are asked to pack lunch, snacks and a water bottle for their children, as well as a bathing suit, towel and snow gear.

Joy and Maynard Phelps have three children: Sarah, 4, Lauren, 6, and Tyson, 8. The family started using the program last year, Joy Phelps said.

"It’s helpful for us to know that we have them going to a place that is safe, really fun and jam-packed full of different activities," the mother said. "The kids are always excited when they hear they're going to the Y for a snow day."

Offering flexible child care programs is an important service for working parents, said Julie Kashen, policy director of Make it Work, an education campaign focused on advancing economic security for women, men and families across the United States.

“Today, a majority of parents are working. That doesn’t change the fact that snow days happen and kids get sick,” Kashen said. “There’s kind of this general piece of the puzzle that when our workplace rules were created, the majority of women were not in the workplace. In our current economy, that’s not even an option for most families, not to mention the demographic of single parents that are in the workforce.”

“This is a problem that gets highlighted during snow days, but it’s also a problem during other times, like the summer,” she added.

According to “Parents and the High Cost of Child Care,” a 2016 report done by national nonprofit Child Care Aware of America, 45 percent of parents are absent from work at least once over a six-month period, missing an average of 4.3 days due to child care breakdowns. In addition, 65 percent of parents’ work schedules are affected by child care challenges an average of 7.5 times over a six-month period, the report said.

Child Care Aware's mission is to advance affordability, accessibility, development and learning of children in child care.

The report also estimated $28.9 billion in wages is lost annually by working families, who do not have access to affordable child care and paid family and medical leave.

The YMCA’s price for the snow day care is also fairly affordable and comparative to other child care options, Kashen said.

Springfield said several parents have told her the YMCA’s snow day care rate – which is based off of competitive market prices and the YMCA’s rates for other child care programs – is a fair price.

Having affordable child care is a major factor for many parents, Kashen said.

“Childcare needs to be affordable for families,” she said. “You don’t want a situation where only the wealthiest families have a place for their kids to go on a snow day.”

In state fiscal year 2016, 89 children from income-eligible families received subsidies for child care in Williamsburg, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services’ 2016 Local Departments of Social Services Profile.

James City County and York County/Poquoson had 245 and 220 children, respectively, who received child care subsidies in 2016, according to the report.

The cost of the YMCA's snow day program is an added bonus for the Phelps family, Joy Phelps said. The only other snow day care program they have heard of is twice the cost per child.

"It just makes sense, it's a great price," she added.

If a family can’t find or afford child care on snow days, they are faced with tough decisions.

“They’re forced to take their kids to work, have them stay with family members or have a trusted neighbor take care of them for the day,” Kashen said. “Or they might have to take a day off and risk losing their job.”

Although the Williamsburg YMCA offers the snow day care program for working parents, Kashen said those programs are not as available in other parts of the country.

“I think the first thing to think about is that it’s an amazing service,” Kashen said. “A majority of communities don’t have that, to the best of my knowledge. That’s a need [the Williamsburg YMCA] is filling that everyone should have access to, but doesn’t.”

For the five-member Phelps family, the YMCA's snow day care program provides the necessary support for both the children and parents to thrive.

"We don't take the kids anywhere else," Joy Phelps said. "I don't know what we would've done otherwise."

Fearing can be reached at 207-975-5459.