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

This week, school districts must submit their plan for re-opening schools to the state Department of Education. But in all the ensuing conversations around what is best for Connecticut’s children and their parents, there is one group that continues to be overlooked.

Merrill Gay and Elizabeth Fraser

A sound plan for re-opening the economy must include child care: and not just guidance on logistics for keeping young children and their teachers healthy. We need to talk about the resources it will take — financial, human, and otherwise— to make sure every family who needs quality care for their kids can access it. Even before COVID-19, too many of our state’s families struggled to find and afford high quality child care. But like so many things, the virus has taken the situation from difficult to dire.

Nationally and here in Connecticut, child care has been written off as a private, individual concern for too long. But the fact is, all of us, whether we have young children or not, have a critical stake in a child care system that gives kids the strong foundation they need and parents the ability to go to work every day.

As long-time advocates for children and families in Connecticut, our question is: what will the nation’s decision-makers do about it? As Congress bails out the airline industry to the tune of $50 billion and issues loans to corporate giants, we must call them out on the carpet. What are they doing for working families and young children? Who is looking out for the small business child care providers —many of them owned and run by women of color and staffed by people struggling to make ends meet?

Make no mistake: child care in America is under a siege of unprecedented proportions. Here in Connecticut, three out of four child care centers shut down completely this spring. Nationally, 350,000 child care workers are out of a job. Recent research from the Center for American Progress found roughly half the nation’s capacity to care for children outside the home is at risk of disappearing forever. Statewide, we face a frightening shortage of 20,000 child care slots by this fall. Survey data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children indicates that over half of Connecticut’s child care programs are likely to close for good by the end of the year without public support.

Even before the pandemic struck, public spending on this vital support to families was painfully low. The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) – our nation’s major subsidy program for low-income families – is so underfunded it reaches just one in every six eligible families. To date, the entire child care sector has received just $3.5 billion in dedicated stimulus funds.

Our Connecticut delegation— especially Rep. Rosa DeLauro—has called for a critical infusion of resources to shore up this dramatically underfunded system of care. The $50 billion they’ve proposed would be a life line for the sector, with an estimated $330 million dedicated to our state. But even these funds are nowhere near enough to sustain providers and parents in need of support. Experts estimate this money would be gone in just six months. Instead, nationally it will take roughly $9.6 billion per month to ensure care is available for frontline providers today and that we can accommodate all families when the economy fully re-opens.

In our line of work, we hear the plight of providers and parents daily. No one is more eager to find a way forward that maximizes safety, stability and quality care for children.

So as spaces for children evaporate, we implore our state and national elected leaders to answer the question: what exactly do you expect working parents to do? As the Centers for Disease Control issue guidelines to re-open child care as safely as possible, how is it you expect providers to make it work with higher costs and fewer children?

Without deliberate policy action, families who can afford it will have to pay more as centers and family child care providers raise costs to pay for the recommended staff, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment necessary to minimize risk. Meanwhile, families who can’t will have to choose between a paycheck and caring for their child —or worse, rely on arrangements that are unstable and unsafe. Both will face added pressures —financial, emotional, and logistical– as they struggle to balance responsibilities at home and at work.

From our perch, the answer is clear. As our state and national elected leaders make plans for public schools and higher education, they must accept that the education and care of younger children is an equally as pressing concern. Our society and economy cannot rebound without meaningful, lasting policy action to make affordable, high quality child care available to every family that needs it. There’s not a minute to waste.

Merrill Gay is Executive Director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance. Elizabeth Fraser is Policy Director at the Connecticut Association for Human Services.

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