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Childcare is Barrier to Reopening

Childcare is Barrier to Reopening

By Vince Conti

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
Before COVID-19 disrupted daily life, one in three children under 5 years old attended a paid child care facility, a home daycare center, or participated in a pre-kindergarten program. Nationally two-thirds of families with school-age children have both parents working, making child care an essential element of the family plan.
Even in Cape May County, with its older population, 16% of that population is under the age of 18, and half of that number is under the age of 10. Census figures show that 11% of county households have young children. These children are in the homes of the county’s working-age adults, a shrinking population of county individuals who are not retired from the workforce.
As fear over COVID-19 spread and closed businesses across the nation, it seriously damaged the local tourist-based economy in the county. The task of restarting that economy may put childcare front and center.
Cape May County has 29 state-licensed childcare centers, including four Head Start programs. Parents also rely on available extended family members, home daycare, recreation camps, after school programs and a myriad of other venues, all of which have been impacted by the coronavirus and the shelter-in-place orders.
What the virus did was upend the careful balancing act many parents had constructed out of a mix of options.
Gov. Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 110 March 25, closing child care centers as part of the struggle to contain the spread of the virus. Parents immediately resumed 24-hour responsibility for child care, while also taking on new education roles as schools closed. Many parents found themselves unemployed, while others tried balancing working at home with the other added tasks.
Now, the nation and the county are moving to reopen society. A key factor may be how to bring along expanding childcare opportunities on a parallel track, as restarting workplaces begin calling parents back to jobs.
The childcare industry has been hit hard by the closures. Parents facing new financial pressures may find paid childcare, already barely affordable for many, now out of reach even if it is available.
Along with everything comes consideration of the safety concerns. Will reopened childcare facilities be safe places for parents to place their children while going back to a lurching restart of the economy?
A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation briefing found that 90% of childcare is privately run. Researchers found the services expensive to use, expensive to run, and existing on low-profit margins.
A survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in April, found centers either closed or grappling with higher costs for sanitation and other protocols. This, coupled with expected capacity limitations, may upend business models and revenue projections in ways that make it difficult for providers to survive.
What was not a healthy system before the crisis happened is now showing signs of serious damage. Yet, an economy cannot effectively reopen without strategies and opportunities for the care of young children.
State officials knew that when they allowed child care centers to remain open if they serviced the children of essential workers. The Emergency Child Care Assistance Program was clear recognition of the central importance of a childcare component to a reopening strategy.
Gov. Murphy announced his three-stage Road Back plan. Each stage removes more restrictions while reopening sectors of the economy.
In stage one, where the state currently resides, non-essential businesses are phased in based on the ease with which they can incorporate safeguards. This has led to the spate of orders, allowing non-essential construction, drive-in events, curbside retail pickup and the resumption of elective surgeries.
In stage two, additional activities will be added to the easing of restrictions.  Examples include expanded retail and outdoor service at restaurants, libraries, and limited personal care services. It is a stage marked by new openings, carrying heavy burdens for safeguards and capacity management.
Only in stage three does one arrive at expanded dining, in-office work, limited entertainment venues, and bars with capacity limits.
At each stage, more individuals will return to the workforce, and the issue surrounding child care will become more central. A major complication will be handling child care if schools do not reopen on time for in-person education.
The language in the governor’s plan does not assure that an expanding workplace will be opened in synchronization with expanding child care activities and in-person school schedules. Yet, there is much to suggest that not having this in synch may seriously retard reopening efforts.
Even at the end game of the current plan, stage three, the language used does not suggest required coordination in the opening strategy. At stage three, K-12 “may operate in person with reduced capacity.” Childcare will “likely open for most.”
The plan, of course, is only dealing with projected stages of what will be allowed. It makes no statements about economic realities confronting childcare providers and schools as the economy reopens.
The CARES Act contained $3.5 billion for Child Care Development Block Grants and $750 million for Head Start. The money will likely be consumed quickly.
The bottom line remains that a restarted economy will continue to depend on child care solutions that are safe, affordable and synchronized with the easing of restrictions in the workplace. 
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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