As several governors start to reopen their states across the country, more mothers and fathers will begin to return to their jobs. But will parents with young children have access to child care? Their ability to go back to work or obtain and retain a job in the labor market will depend on it.
Unlike public schools, which are funded by state budgets and could most likely reopen in the fall, the child care industry faces a far more uncertain future. Child care is a business, and the programs are primarily funded by private fees paid by parents, which comprise operating budgets that fund the staff and fixed costs such as leases, utilities, and insurance.
How much damage has the coronavirus inflicted on child care programs? Consider one recent survey, which polled parents who previously paid for child care. It found that more than 60 percent of parents using child care centers said their center had closed, while almost 50 percent of parents using a family child care home said their program had closed.
After months without revenue, many of these centers may lack the means to reopen. In some states, such as Vermont and Rhode Island, governors have closed child care programs through the end of May, except for those serving essential employees. Stricter closures apply elsewhere, including in Massachusetts, which has shut down child care programs until the end of June, again except for those serving essential employees.
For programs that remain open, the average enrollment is well below the level projected for their operating models. In nearly 60 percent of states, governors have limited the number of children in this setting to 10 or less. In the efforts to promote social distancing and reduce the chances of the coronavirus spreading, that limitation makes sense from the public health perspective. However, this also means a significant loss of revenue, which leads to an equally significant loss of staff because of layoffs.
But the fallout does not stop there. Another consequence of lowering the number of children in any program is the inability to underwrite or reduce the cost of care for parents with infants or toddlers. Since more adults are necessary in the classroom to promote the safety and health of all infants and toddlers, staff costs are generally more expensive. A reduction in the number of children in centers could have the collateral impact of closing infant and toddler rooms, which were already in short supply.
Indeed, high quality child care is a public good. It is an essential service as we have seen across states where child care programs are at the forefront to support those children of essential employees. Moreover, child care not only facilitates the ability of parents to work, but it is also an early learning setting for kids that will help to enhance their school readiness.
Congress can take several steps to bolster child care in the next stimulus package. Congress can provide states temporary funding to programs to stabilize and continue operations during the next year while the economy moves to more parents going back to work. Congress can provide grants to child care programs that are now closed so they can reopen and meet community needs. Public private partnerships can be encouraged to help programs reduce costs and operate in a more efficient manner.
We must rethink the model and ensure that high quality child care will be available for kids, parents, businesses, and communities. Parents cannot return to work and the economy cannot fully reopen without it.
Cindy Cisneros is vice president of education programs at the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board. She was previously a special assistant for elementary education at the Department of Education.