HONOLULU – Little did Joanna Lara know she was supposed to start thinking about child care before her son was even born. That the waitlists would be so endless and widespread. That the sticker shock would be so, well, shocking. 

By the time her son, now 3, was a few months old, Lara was at a loss for what to do. The 27-year-old social worker in Hawaii was just kicking off her career and still earning entry-level wages. Quality child care cost more than she could afford. Plus, even if she could figure out a way to pay, she’d have to wait for longer than a year to get her hands on a spot. 

She relied on friends for a while and eventually found an informal home day care. The provider wasn’t licensed, but at least it was reasonably priced. “At the time, I was so desperate,” Lara said. “I was like, ‘This will do.’” 

That arrangement sufficed until COVID-19 hit. The day care closed temporarily, and once it reopened Lara didn’t feel comfortable sending her son to a place that wasn’t regulated. There was no way of ensuring the provider was sanitizing properly, she said. What if her toddler got sick or brought home germs? Lara lives with someone who has health problems. 

So she went back to the beginning of her child care search. Back to the sticker shock, the waitlists, the desperation. Because she was looking for a regulated and, therefore, more expensive day care, she also had to contend with a new headache: securing financial aid. 

For parents across the country, the process of finding and signing up for child care – and the government subsidies that help them afford it – has become more overwhelming than ever before. Quality early-learning options are in short supply across the country. Centers are understaffed, and case managers are overextended. Many families lack the time and savvy needed to land a seat at the programs that do exist. 

First, there’s the hassle of figuring out what’s available: Reliable, go-to directories listing up-to-date openings are rare, as are clear ratings of a program’s quality. Then there’s the time-consuming task of calling or visiting each of those providers to see where there are vacancies, filling out applications and, sometimes, going through interviews. Then the months- or even years-long waitlists. Preschool admissions can be cutthroat.

And for many low- and middle-income parents, there’s the added step of figuring out and applying for financial aid, which typically requires its own mishmash of procedures and paperwork. 

“Given today’s technology, it should be as easy to find child care as it is to make a dinner reservation,” said Cara Sklar, the deputy director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank. 

Instead, Lara said, “it feels like you’re submitting an application into outer space.”  …

Read the full story in USA TODAY.