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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Lynette M. Fraga and Deeann Puffert: The COVID-19 math doesn’t work for Washington’s child care providers

By Lynette M. Fraga</p><p> and Deeann Puffert Child Care Aware

This is a critical time for our economy. It is also a critical time for the most important workforce support of all – child care. Parents cannot work, no matter how essential they are, if they do not have child care for their children. Earlier this spring, nearly 6% of Washington nurses who responded to a survey reported they had to use sick time, or not work at all, due to not having child care.

Now, with many K-12 schools offering remote learning only, many more children are in need of child care who previously attended elementary schools. Yet our state’s child care programs are struggling to keep their doors open, and many have closed.

There were 252 licensed child care programs in Spokane County as of Dec. 31, 2019. The pandemic has caused 51 of them to close. While some of these closures are temporary, some are not.

Washington state and Spokane County cannot afford to lose any more child care programs. They are vital to our communities and our economy.

Washington’s child care and early learning programs have accounted for only 1% of our state budget for decades. Now they are supporting an even larger share of the parental workforce since most K-12 schools are closed for in-person instruction. At the same time, the costs of caring for children during the COVID-19 pandemic have increased due to the need for increased cleaning and disinfection, personal protective equipment and reduced group sizes to facilitate physical distancing.

The result? Many providers in our state (and across the country) cannot make the COVID-19 math work and have had to permanently close. This further compounds the child care crisis that began years before COVID-19 hit, reducing child care capacity as parts of our economy look to reopen.

Child Care Aware of America recently launched the Child Care Data Center (childcareaware.org/ccdc/state/wa), providing access to important child care data on affordability, availability and more. The data shows the supply of child care has decreased due to COVID-19. This is especially problematic in communities of color where people are already experiencing a disproportionate share of negative impacts from the pandemic and the economic turmoil it has caused.

Thankfully, there are real funding and policy solutions that can help. Several organizations and state agencies have offered grants that have provided enough funding to keep hundreds of providers open for a number of months. These grants, combined with child care providers’ tenacity, grit and amazing abilities to stretch every dollar, have allowed Washington’s child care system to offer care to thousands of working parents who otherwise would have had to leave their jobs.

But stopgap measures do not last for long. More investment is needed to keep this essential workforce support operational for the long road toward economic recovery. High-quality child care programs don’t just fall from the sky whenever they are needed. They are built over time upon a foundation of trust, health and safety guidelines and small business ingenuity.

That’s why Child Care Aware of America and Child Care Aware of Washington are asking Congress to invest in the long-term stability and success of our country’s child care system.

We would never expect our K-12 educational system to struggle month after month with only stopgap funding, and then expect it to be 100% ready for in-person instruction when the pandemic subsides.

We cannot expect it of our mostly, privately funded child care system either.

Investments reveal what matters. Investing in America’s children, families and workforce matters.

For Washington’s and the nation’s economy to reopen after the COVID-19 threat subsides, millions of families will need safe, affordable child care. Let’s make sure it will be there for all with robust public investment.

Lynette M. Fraga, Ph.D., is chief executive officer of Child Care Aware of America. Deeann Puffert is chief executive officer of Child Care Aware of Washington.

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