As parents of small children head back to workplaces during Washington’s phased reopening, they will need access to safe, affordable, quality child care.
As longtime child-care advocate state Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, puts it, there will be no economic recovery without child care. The two go hand in hand.
But the state’s child-care providers have been walloped by this spring’s public-health emergency, as costs increased and attendance nose-dived. Around the state, hundreds of large and small providers have closed at least temporarily as a result of COVID-19 and its ripple effects in communities and on the economy. Others are barely scraping by.
New class size and physical-distancing guidelines intended to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus will continue to pile on the expense, as providers are asked to limit the number of children per room and minimize close contact — no small feat when curious and affectionate toddlers are in the mix.
Ensuring the survival of this vital service will require a much bigger assist than already-stressed household budgets and state coffers will be able to handle. Congress must come to the rescue. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has proposed a lifeline in the form of a $50 billion child care stabilization fund. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, has signed on to similar legislation in the House of Representatives.
The Child Care is Essential Act would provide grants to licensed and regulated child-care providers, including those that have temporarily closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providers could use the funds for payroll and building expenses, to purchase personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies, to pay for health and safety training, and to provide mental-health supports for children and staff.
It would provide critical support to an essential industry that operated on thin margins even before this spring’s pandemic, prioritizing funding for providers who care for underserved populations.
There is a clear need for a cash infusion. Already, the state Department of Children, Youth and Families has divvied up $29 million in federal CARES Act funding for licensed child-care providers and is in the process of disbursing the funds. The one-time grants of between $6,500-$14,000, based on the number of children served, are a drop in the bucket for providers who are managing increased costs for sanitation and protective equipment as tuition fees have dwindled.
Moving forward, ongoing social-distancing guidelines will as much as nearly double the cost of providing child care for some age groups, according to a ChildCare Aware WA analysis — from $11,066 to $21, 581 per year for the average preschooler in a mid-sized center and from $15,372 to $24,674 for a toddler. The group calculates the cost of infant care will remain roughly the same.
Without assistance, more child-care providers will certainly be forced to close or dramatically reduce their services.
Carol Gibbs, President of the Washington State Family Child Care Association, put it bluntly: “It’s a stressful time.”
The pandemic has left no doubt: Child care is an essential part of the economy, our communities and access to opportunity. As the crisis wanes, policymakers, employers and voters should focus attention on long-term solutions ensuring access to this vital resources.
In the near-term, stabilizing this fragile industry is not a bailout. It is a necessary step.