As COVID-19 stay-at-home orders began triggering business closures in early spring, there was much attention paid to shuttered restaurants and storefronts. But Nidhi Mirani worried for the invisible victims of the economic shutdown, namely in-home childcare facilities.
Primarily run by women, and often women who are racial minorities, immigrants, older or a combination of those, the childcare businesses were suddenly forced to navigate possible closures and new rules for operating during a pandemic. The families who used their services, many of whom received subsidies for care, faced layoffs or the threat of losing jobs while their kids’ schools were also sending students home.
Mirani, executive director of the Seattle-based non-profit Carina, was in a position to help both of these vulnerable populations.
Launched in 2016, Carina is an online platform for connecting in-home care providers with seniors and people with disabilities receiving Medicaid who need assistance. Mirani had previously thought of expanding their services into childcare. COVID jump-started the idea.
“We put it on fast forward,” she said. “The need became so apparent, and it felt like nobody was focused on it.”
Since its start, Carina had worked with Seattle-based engineers from VMware’s Pivotal Labs to help build its digital tools. The two teamed up again to quickly modify the platform to meet the needs of childcare facilities and families. Starting in mid-March, engineers from Carina and Pivotal Labs in 11 days created a site for on-boarding providers in two languages; by mid April, families were able to access the tool.
It’s starting to take off:
- 2,000 in-home childcare providers are using Carina, with 300 of those in Washington.
- States using the platform include Washington, California, Illinois, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
- Approximately 40,000 families have used the site.
Providers must be union-represented and licensed by regulatory agencies to get a spot on the platform.
Families are able to quickly search for locations close to their home, and each week the Carina platform texts providers to confirm whether they have spots available. Most facilities take up to eight children.
There are other daycare search tools available, such as Winnie and UrbanSitter, though many are focused on nannies, babysitting or larger commercial facilities. Seattle startup Weekdays matches families with childcare, with a focus on microschools. State childcare databases are also online, but lack details on openings.
While there were shortages in quality childcare before COVID — a national study found that half of Americans live in “childcare deserts” — the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges.
“This is a crisis we have never seen before in childcare and school support,” said Shauna Causey, founder and CEO of Weekdays, in a recent video-conference panel on working parents.
Mirani hopes her platform will help in-home day cares stay afloat and ease some of the difficulties being experienced by families. The Carina site allows providers to post video tours and share detailed information about their facilities, including the languages spoken, special skills and years of experience.
Carina’s 10-person team is funded primarily through foundations including the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and receives support from labor organizations. Pivotal Labs, working through its Pivotal Act program that benefits nonprofits, provided two months of free engineering for the project.
Beatrice Speck is a Pivotal Labs engineering manager who worked with Carina. She had a personal connection to the project: her husband had worked for a commercial childcare provider and opted to take a furlough when colleagues were laid off due to COVID.
“I knew how many people had been impacted by the crisis,” Speck said. “I really wanted to support Carina in helping workers in that [commercial] space maybe get work in an in-home environment.”
Mirani is open to continuing Carina’s expansion. She looks for outside partners to spread the word and vouch for the platform. On the providers’ side, that can mean unions representing childcare workers and for families it includes their employers, unions and community groups. In Los Angeles, for example, Mayor Eric Garcetti promoted Carina as one of the tools for finding childcare as part of a program supporting hospital workers.
“We just can’t turn a blind eye,” Mirani said. “It is a time of great distress for families and childcare providers.”
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