It’s a pretty typical summer morning at Katie Sonnen-Lee’s home in Winston-Salem. 

She’s finishing a cup of coffee while her dogs, Winston and Lucy, run around the house, and her sons, Jackson and Holden, get ready for the day ahead. 

"Let's put on our shoes," she calls out from the kitchen. "Get our lunch boxes, any last bathroom breaks."

The kids are going to a horse riding camp this week. Each day ends at 12:30 p.m. so Sonnen-Lee and her husband take turns working remotely to make sure someone’s home with the kids in the afternoons. 

This is one piece in a big child care puzzle they have to put together every summer, several months in advance.  

“And we need summer care, because our jobs don't have a different schedule in the summer. You know, it's the same thing, whether it's July or January," she said. "Piecing that together is always really hard.”

She says it’s easier now that her kids are in school for most of the year. But when they were younger, finding full-time child care was so difficult that Sonnen-Lee quit her job. 

“It wasn't a choice I necessarily wanted to make to stay home. But it was really the only choice that made sense," Sonnen-Lee said. "For those four years, I really had to just sort of shut down that part of myself that had my own ambitions and needs and just do what we needed to do to get through that period.”

That’s a decision that a lot of working parents in Forsyth County are faced with. 

The average cost of a day care program in the area is around $800 a month per child. For some families, it might not make sense financially to work if the take-home pay isn’t much more than the cost of care. 

But even those who can afford it struggle to find available spots. And some are on a waitlist for so long that by the time one opens up, their child has aged out.

Katura Jackson, the executive director of the local Child Care Resource Center, which has been in operation for over 30 years, explains. 

"What it comes down to is that there are probably five children for every one space in a child care program that is serving children birth to five years of age," Jackson said. "And so that just tells you that we really don't have enough care."

This is a national challenge, but North Carolina and Forsyth County specifically, are considered child care deserts. The county currently has about 160 licensed centers and family child care homes — nearly half as many as there were ten years ago. 

Jackson attributes the decline to the high costs of opening and running these programs. But while parents are already paying top dollar for care, the teachers at some of these centers are barely paid enough to get by. 

"You don't have any benefits. And a lot of the teachers who are in those programs, they're eligible for food stamps, Medicaid. So they are still trying to survive themselves on that income," Jackson said. "They may love teaching. But then they also have to think about if they have families, if they have children that they need to take care of.”

Some of these teachers end up going into the public school system instead. Others leave the field altogether. 

The result is understaffed child care centers, even fewer options for working parents, and fewer children accessing early education during a critical time for brain development. 

This isn't a new problem. The North Carolina Early Education Coalition has been lobbying to improve child care in the state since the 90s. 

“It has been an issue for a long time," said Jenna Nelson, the executive director of the coalition. "And it was on the brink of collapse prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic really, it did shine a light on how essential child care is because when we needed our essential workers, we couldn't have them if they didn't have access to child care.”

That brought about some temporary solutions, like child care stabilization grants through federal COVID-19 American Rescue Plan Act funding. 

North Carolina dispersed more than $800 million in grants to providers, many of whom used the money to increase teacher salaries. But come December of this year, those funds are gone. 

“So we're facing a huge cliff where those raises are going to be taken away. And we're concerned that, you know, someone who is now making $16 an hour and they were used to making 11, they're going to leave when they go back to 11," Nelson said. "Because they they really can't survive on $11 an hour.”

The coalition is pushing the state legislature to issue a one time $300 million investment to maintain teaching staff salaries through June of 2025. 

But that would still be a temporary fix. And experts say that without a long-term, sustainable influx of cash, more and more child care centers will close their doors. 

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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