Greater Waterbury YMCA has opened two child care programs to serve the children of hospital staff.

Headlines around the country have been calling attention to the stress working families are experiencing as they face the impossible challenge of working at home and caring for their children simultaneously.  Teachers and child care professionals have never been more appreciated. While it is gratifying to see a profession finally get the appreciation it deserves, it functions only as lip service if it isn’t followed up with tangible support and action.

Michelle Doucette-Cunningham

As Connecticut businesses begin to reopen, more support is needed to address the looming child care crisis. Without schools and child care, parents cannot leave their children alone to go back to work. Parents all across the state are asking, “How can I go back to work when there’s no place for my kids to go?” Businesses should be asking, “Will my employees be able to find care so they can return to work?”

We need an honest conversation about the role of schools and child care as essential elements of our economy. Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont helped to relieve some of this stress when he announced that summer school and camps will open this summer. But we also know that to do so safely, programs will need to greatly increase the number of staff they usually employ while reducing their enrollment, which will multiply their costs.

The vast majority of children in Connecticut live in families where all the adults are in the workforce, or will be looking for work once businesses reopen. But if we are unable to keep pace opening child care programs and summer camps, parents will be unable to return to work, which could slow our economic recovery.

While some federal relief is available, there is an overwhelming concern that it will not be enough to prevent the widespread bankruptcy of the majority of family and center-based child care small businesses and non-profit programs.

Child care needs to be at the table of every community’s recovery committee. Gov. Lamont recently called for the creation of long-term recovery committees in every town and city to provide a coordinated recovery effort with local governments and community partners.

The essential work of coordinating services for children and families such as early childhood education programs, summer camps, health care, nutrition are already underway in the 42 towns and cities that make up the Connecticut Children’s Collective, an alliance of local partnerships and children’s councils across the state. Each of these groups needs to be at the table as communities plan for moving forward. From organizing diaper banks and food pantries, to helping local child care providers decide when and if to reopen, we know what’s needed to help parents be able to return to work.

Child care and other programs that provide essential services that allow people to work must have a seat at the table, both locally as long-term recovery committees are forming, and statewide as plans are made for moving forward. While it is an important first step to have Commissioner Beth Bye of the Office for Early Childhood as one of Gov.Lamont’s 40 appointees to the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Committee, more attention is needed to ensure child care supply can meet the demand.

We need more than seats. This is more than just a supply and demand economic issue. Programs have to be safe. No one wants to risk their or their families’ health. It is essential to provide safe environments and to do so requires more space, more staff, and more supplies.

Guidance for how best to operate safely in light of the current pandemic is under development, which will include more extensive cleaning and disinfecting of every part of a program’s materials and facilities. Programs need access to cleaning supplies, gloves, thermometers, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, and other materials that are in short supply.

An adequate number of qualified staff is needed to ensure small group sizes with enough substitutes so that a staff member feeling ill can stay home. And we need to provide health insurance so that the people caring for our children are not risking their own health and well-being should they become ill. These recommendations that once sounded “best case” are now requirements if we want to keep our children and staff healthy and safe.

Providers are asking “Is it safe for us?”  Some care providers are older, or have other health issues, or live with someone who does. “Is it worth it for $12 an hour?” There’s little economic incentive for the responsibility and hard work of caring for a group of children. Staff need adequate wages—if they are earning more on unemployment than working in child care, it’s a sure sign that wages in this essential and important industry are too low.

We need to start a larger conversation about the mismatch between what support working parents and their employers need, and what is available. Before the pandemic, families across America reported that the gap between work and school schedules can be up to 25 hours per week, not including school and summer vacations. There are 252 workdays in 2020, and even in normal years schools only cover 180 of these days.  That does not include a child’s first five years, when families have to pay for costs out of pocket unless they are eligible for very limited government aid.

Child care programs and summer camps currently operate on razor-thin margins. Are we already past the point where some of these businesses can afford to re-open? Will these programs be able to find qualified staff at the wages they deserve and can afford to pay? Let’s not wait to see if the supply of child care and summer camp spaces will be enough to meet the needs of families as we get back to business. Let’s start planning together to be sure that it is.

Michelle Doucette Cunningham is Executive Director of the Connecticut After School Network and helps lead the Connecticut Children’s Collective, a network of local partnerships creating positive outcomes for Connecticut’s children and families. 

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