by Lynette M. Fraga
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The coronavirus pandemic shows just how essential child care is.
Since March, many working parents across the country have scrambled to find alternative child care arrangements as schools and some child care providers closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Those parents who were able to “work from home” struggled to balance work and being present for their young children, and less than 30 percent of workers can even work from home, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And while health care providers and other essential personnel put their lives on the line caring for others, who was taking care of their children?
Health care workers in the U.S. have over 3.5 million children, according to an interactive map developed by Yale University professors and based on census data. These children needed care, in order for health care workers to respond to COVID-19, but 2.3 million of them had no obvious child care providers available.
A nurse in Kansas told us, “I absolutely have to work. My child care closed with one day’s notice. I found another child care program and asked if I could count on them to be open. They told me that they are open today and plan to be open tomorrow, but due to the coronavirus and uncertain times, they could not promise me anything.”
Meanwhile, we were hearing from child care providers across the country that were laying off staff, did not know how they would pay their rent and other expenses, and were running out of funds because their programs are only supported by monthly tuition payments. A provider from Washington highlighted the urgency of the situation by saying, “We are going under, absolutely no money. We stand to lose everything.”
According to a national survey of over 5,000 child care providers from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in April of this year, nearly 40 percent of child care providers reported that they either had to lay off or furlough workers, or that they themselves had been laid off or furloughed.
A few states were out front in supporting child care providers. Child Care Aware of Minnesota administered and distributed state grants for emergency child care services. The grants were included as part of the state legislature’s COVID-19 Response Supplemental Budget, and provided about $10 million per month to support basic infrastructure needed to keep child care capacity available.
In Vermont, child care programs that provided emergency child care for essential workers received supplemental payments per child per week from the state. Vermont also created a program to help child care providers that serve families who were unable to pay their regular tuition during the pandemic.
In Colorado, a statewide public-private partnership launched an Emergency Child Care Collaborative that provided all essential workers with a 100 percent tuition credit for child care. It also connected essential workers who needed child care with an open child care site or emergency child care provider.
But states could not do it alone.
Thousands of parents, child care providers and others contacted their members of Congress to urge them to support child care in the federal stimulus packages. A child care provider from Maryland wrote, “Right now, I need federal policy makers to take a deeper look at the child care industry and realize the impact we have on the working world, should we not be able to operate our business.”
These advocates urged Congress to provide payments to programs and workers in the case of coronavirus-related closures; support back-up child care, especially for emergency and essential workers; and fund programs to continue to serve children when parents or caregivers are unable to make co-payments or pay tuition. Advocates also urged support for the licensed child care providers who chose to care for the children of first responders, health care workers and other essential personnel. These providers put their own and their families’ health at risk, often without the resources and supplies they needed.
Congress began to acknowledge the essential role that child care was playing during the pandemic. It provided a “down payment” of $3.5 billion in child care funds to states in stimulus legislation that was signed into law on March 27. Many states used the money to support the emergency child care they provided for essential workers. But advocates were calling for at least $50 billion to keep our nation’s child care infrastructure from crumbling in the short term. Without this assistance, they were very concerned that there would not be much of a child care sector to come back to after the pandemic.
Child Care Aware of America and Save the Children Action Network released a national survey in April that showed that 80 percent of voters supported targeted financial assistance for the child care industry from the federal government to address the impact of COVID-19. This overwhelming support crossed party lines, ideological persuasions, generations and economic classes. Voters clearly understood that a strong child care industry was essential to getting the American economy back up and running, and were sending a clear signal to Congress that child care must be prioritized.
While we were working with other child care advocates to respond to current needs, we were also working to re-envision the child care system so it comes back even stronger after the pandemic. The child care system is already exclusive for too many, out of reach because of cost or geography. During the pandemic, early childhood educators were being asked to do more, and serve in riskier situations, with the meager compensation and resources they have.
With new public investment in child care during this crisis, we can begin to support and grow a more equitable system for the future.
The coronavirus pandemic and its economic, health and safety implications revealed existing and new needs within the child care system. As we re-envision the child care system, we must:
Address inequities. Despite low wages, early childhood educators—primarily women and often women of color—provide an essential service to our communities, something we are seeing firsthand during this pandemic. They deserve to be treated as the professionals they are, and to be fairly compensated.
Address the price of child care, which is out of reach for too many families. This will become even more true during an economic downturn.
Invest in health and mental health resources for child care. We need more health consultants, supplies, guidance and trainings dedicated to supporting child care providers. This also includes strengthening, not weakening, health and safety standards.
Invest in quality and infrastructure to bolster the system to weather ups and downs. Child care should be viewed as core infrastructure in the United States, and should be funded as such. Without child care, a large portion of the workforce would be unable to work, and the economy would suffer as a result.
The impacts of this pandemic on the child care supply will be felt for years to come. CCAoA is working closely with child care resource and referral agencies, and other national and state partners, to ensure that the child care industry recovers, that federal and state policy efforts reflect the needs of providers and families, and that the system returns stronger than it was before.
Resources from Child Care Aware of America
Advocacy from Home Toolkit: This digital toolkit will walk you through a meeting or call with legislators, including scheduling, a sample agenda, talking points, and “leave-behind” (or share via email) resources.
CCAoA Emergency Child Care & Technical Assistance Center™: This new initiative provides training and technical assistance to the entire child care community—Child Care Resource and Referral agencies, providers, families and employers—during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
Gould, E. and Shierholz, H. (2020). Not everybody can work from home: Black and Hispanic workers are much less likely to be able to telework. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/blog/black-and-hispanic-workers-are-much-less-likely-to-be-able-to-work-from-home/
From the Front Lines: The Ongoing Effect of the Pandemic on Child Care (2020). National Association for the Education of Young Children. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/topics/naeyc_coronavirus_ongoingeffectsonchildcare.pdf
Survey: Vast Majority of Voters Support Financial Assistance for America’s Child Care Industry to Address COVID-19 Impact (2020). Child Care Aware of America and Save the Children Action Network. https://info.childcareaware.org/media/survey-vast-majority-of-voters-support-financial-assistance-for-americas-child-care-industry-to-address-covid-19-impact
Lynette M. Fraga, Ph.D., is executive director of Child Care Aware® of America, a national membership-based nonprofit organization working to advance a high-quality, affordable child care system that supports children’s growth, development, and early education. She began her career in early childhood as a teacher in infant, toddler and preschool classrooms, and has since held positions at the local, state, and national level within the nonprofit, corporate, and higher education sectors.