COVID-19 has created a pandemic the likes of which none of us has ever seen. The virus is causing all of us and our communities to re-examine how best to reorganize our worlds in a way that will also keep us safe. The two of us are working fathers married to working mothers, and both of us also have young children. Our pandemic experience has taught us two critical lessons: Child care is an essential underpinning of Maine’s economy, and it should be supported in a way that reflects that importance.
Parents need to work and kids need to learn. Where that happens, when that happens and for how long that happens each day is a dynamic we are all struggling to figure out.
Child care is essential under any circumstances, but if kids are in school less time and parents have to work either in or out of their homes, child care becomes an even more urgent need.
We appreciated the governor’s recent decisions to spend $8.4 million from the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act relief funds to support our critical child care sector, as well as an additional $11 million in federal support through the Child Care Development Block Grant. But these supports are just the beginning of addressing the child care workforce’s needs.
When the pandemic hit Maine, 73 percent of all Maine children under age 6 had all available parents or guardians in the workforce. As our economic recovery continues, we’ll approach that number again, but only if we support the child care teachers needed so that working parents can go back to work. Parents need safe, high-quality child care that they can afford. If school districts hold in-person classes only two or three days per week, working parents will also need help arranging and paying for child care that will cover out-of-school time for their school-aged children.
We also know that, for decades, research has demonstrated that high-quality early learning programs are a solid investment in Maine’s future workforce. These programs teach our youngest children the cognitive, social and emotional skills they need to succeed when they start kindergarten, creating the foundation for later learning and continued success throughout school. Equally important, early education teachers make it possible for many parents to go to work and know that their children are safe and nurtured.
During the past four months, child care providers have suffered unprecedented financial losses. As they reopen, they have less income because of smaller group sizes to accommodate the needed social distancing. According to a survey of child care providers conducted by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, on average, today child care providers are operating at just 65 percent of capacity. Yet at the same time, they are incurring higher costs to meet all the COVID-19 health and safety requirements.
Without additional state and federal financial support, many providers will be unable to sustain their compounding operating losses. Working parents, and our economy, cannot afford to lose more providers. We need to support them now so they will still be here when the COVID-19 crisis ends.
For all of these reasons, we were pleased to learn of the July 15 report recommendation by the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee, which includes spending $20 million from Maine’s federal relief funds to support child care providers caring for our youngest children and an additional $25 million to support child care for school-age children so that they can safely return to school, and their parents can return to work. It is our hope that Gov. Mills and legislators will provide this level of needed funding to our essential child care workforce in Maine.
We also hope that this current crisis will lead to the creation of more partnerships between public schools and child care providers, and that the Mills administration will encourage and incentivize such partnerships.
Now, more than ever, we need to re-create a child care-public school system that serves the needs of our children, and our working families, community by community.