A Patchwork of Child Care for Essential Workers

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland April 29, 2020
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​If there was any doubt about the crucial role reliable child care plays for the modern workforce, it evaporated in mid-March as states began ordering all but essential businesses to close. It turned out that many workers at those essential businesses—from health care professionals to grocery clerks—couldn't get to their jobs because no one was available to care for their kids.

Now every state that issued stay-at-home orders to fight the spread of COVID-19 has some provision for providing child care to essential workers, although the type of assistance varies greatly. Some states opened their own temporary facilities in schools and recreation centers, while others offered special licenses to established child care providers. Some cover the entire cost of care, while others provide subsidies or pay for provisions such as the additional cleaning supplies required under new rules.

States also define the workers who can receive child care benefits in vastly different ways, with California and Ohio among those that list dozens of specific job types under such categories as transportation, food and energy.

To help track the disparate responses, Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit group that advocates quality child care, maintains a map of child care services for essential workers with links to state websites where parents can search for help, and child care providers can apply for special licenses.

The group is also lobbying for greater federal assistance for child care centers that have closed or are operating with far fewer children because parents are unemployed or working from home. "This pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of the child care system," said executive director Lynette M. Fraga. "Federal and state policymakers must act quickly to ensure its survival."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Choosing to Stay Open in Maryland

For 32 years, Kim Good has provided child care to a small group of families from her home in Glen Burnie, Md. She kept her doors open even as cases of COVID-19 were being confirmed around the state. Then in late March, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all day care centers in Maryland to close—unless they obtained a special permit to serve essential workers under a new state program.

Good thought hard. Closing for months would be disastrous financially, but she also had health issues that might make her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. In the end, she decided on a compromise: She would open for some essential workers, but not those working on the front lines of health care. "If I was younger, I wouldn't think twice," she said. "But someone else will have to take that on."

Her clients include a cemetery manager, a bank inspector, a teacher, an electrician and a plumber. As it turns out, all were customers before. The difference now is that they pay nothing. Instead, the state says it will pay Good and other essential care providers a set amount per child. (Four weeks after the program started, Good and two other Maryland child care providers said they haven't yet been paid.)

The special license also comes with "a whole bunch of rules and regulations" regarding cleaning, social distancing and provider/child ratios, Good said. No more than 10 people can be in a home that operates family day care. That means Good, who lives with her husband and daughter, can have no more than seven children in her care—two children fewer than her norm.

Good said she is constantly sterilizing surfaces and cajoling her charges, who are mostly younger than age 5, to wash their hands and keep their hands out of their mouths. She separates the children at snack and nap times, but she concedes that maintaining a six-foot distance during playtime is "impossible."

Although the longtime provider is getting by for now, she wonders how long she can continue to operate under current constraints, compounded by fears of getting sick. "I love my families and I want to help," she said, "but if this happens again in the fall, I don't know if I can keep doing it."

New CDC Guidance for Safe Operations

On April 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted guidance for child care providers operating during the pandemic, including a recommendation that all staff and children over age 2 wear face coverings. The CDC also advised care providers to frequently sanitize toys and bedding and to line up potential substitutes to care for children in case other staff become ill.

In addition, the CDC said care providers should follow this protocol:

Will Child Care as We Know It Survive?

The child care business is precarious, so there isn't much cushion to tide providers over for months of limited or no income. Those who study the sector say the COVID-19 pandemic could deal a death blow to many child care businesses, leading to acute shortages when employees begin returning to work in earnest.

In recognition, federal lawmakers allocated $3.5 billion to the child care industry through the CARES Act, passed in late March. The funds are being distributed to states through block grants, with each state determining how the funds will be used.

But advocates say much more is required. "At least $50 billion is needed to keep our nation's child care infrastructure from crumbling in the long term. Without this assistance, we are very concerned that we may not have much of a child care sector to come back to post-pandemic," said Ami Gadhia, chief of policy, research and programs at Child Care Aware of America. "The small-business loans that were pushed out as part of the CARES Act have run out and are not enough to help keep the child care system from collapsing."

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