Child care is an essential piece to the COVID-19 puzzle

Child Care

Speaking from a child care center in Springfield, Mass., during Day 3 of the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Elizabeth Warren made her point crystal clear:

“It’s time to recognize that childcare is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation,” she said. “It’s infrastructure for families.”

The child care industry and the families it serves are in dire need of help. In the first two months of the COVID-19 crisis alone, 336,000 child care employees lost their jobs, the vast majority of whom are women and disproportionally women of color. Forty percent of all child care providers — and 50% of minority-owned child care businesses — will close permanently without additional financial assistance. We may permanently lose up to half (4.5 million) of our existing child care slots. As Sen. Warren made clear, child care is quite literally a backbone of our economy, as essential to the functioning of our economy as roads and bridges. Child care needs an investment that reflects its true value as a public good.

What is the difference between a four-year-old and a five-year-old? While there are certainly developmental differences, they both need the same amount of adult supervision, have rapidly developing brains, are joyful and playful, frustrating, and maddening. But the biggest difference is that a five-year-old is entitled to a free, public education that can address her educational, social, health and developmental needs, and that allows her parents to attend school or work.  A four-year-old is guaranteed no such thing.

By virtue of having celebrated their 5th birthdays, our children are welcomed into a public school system that can provide incredible benefits for them and their families. Children who happen to be younger than five, but who still have at least as many needs, have no such assurances of care and education. The families of children under the age of five are largely left without a public policy solution that meets their needs. This hits lower-income families hardest, many of them families of color. This is an issue of equity. This must change in the near-term to address the child care system in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, and also in the long-term to make necessary changes to a system that impacts so many families.

Our country has been undergoing an emotional and important debate about whether schools will open in person, remotely, or a combination of both in the coming weeks. There has rightly been an incredible amount of effort dedicated to deciding what schools should look like for our K-12 students. But there has been no such debate over child care — it is simply expected to be there. Child care has some of the same challenges in reopening that schools have, but receives significantly less public financing to meet those challenges. Child care providers of all types will have to secure personal protective equipment, install new ventilation systems, increase spacing between children and teachers, implement new health and safety standards, purchase additional cleaning supplies, and devise COVID-19 mitigation strategies and plans. And yet child care providers survive almost entirely on fees paid by families and at full enrollment. Many providers will be unable to maintain full enrollment because of necessary reductions in class sizes and some families’ decisions not to send their children back to in-person settings yet. Many will not be able to survive these challenges — thereby threatening our economic recovery — without additional federal support.

The irony of having a back-to-school debate without a child care debate is that child care will be in even greater demand when schools do begin to go back part-time or remotely. Parents will need care for their children during various school schedules while they themselves attempt to work in person or remotely. This will present a jigsaw puzzle for families in which child care is the missing piece.

We need a significant and immediate investment in child care of $50 billion to keep the industry afloat over the next few months that will build on the $3.5 billion Congress included in the CARES Act.

Child care holds up our economy. Many people have known this for a long time but only now is that truth becoming painfully clear to everyone. We must provide stability for our child care providers and the hundreds of thousands of families they serve, for the sake of our children and economy. It is well past time.