When states and cities in the US announced coronavirus shutdown orders in March of 2020, many schools and child care centers complied, leaving parents scrambling to fill the void left by child care providers.
Then, as lockdown measures eased a few months later, parents eager to return to work quickly realized that they no longer had as many options for child care as they previously had.
As of July 2020, at least 30 percent of child care providers in the US had permanently closed, leaving three million child care workers unemployed and millions of children without adequate care. Moreover, many schools have opted to reopen in the fall of 2020, with staggered or part-time schedules, and at least 60 private schools have gone out of business, displacing thousands of students nationwide.
If this ongoing child care crisis remains unaddressed, parents who do not have a safe place to leave their kids during work hours may not be able to return to work. This could further devastate an already-crippled economy and widen the socioeconomic gap.
With nearly 15 million parents and 8.7 million children in the US dependent on child care, keeping existing child care providers afloat and encouraging new ones to open up should be a priority.
One way to help is to treat home-based providers like start-ups and offer them small business support. This includes providing them with access to regional networks to improve their quality and to help them with recruitment and the professional development of their workforce. Helping them get started and setting them up for success is an important step towards economic recovery.
Another way to help schools and child care centers is to provide them with liability protection against frivolous lawsuits, such as those resulting from possible exposure to the coronavirus on school property. The possibility of such lawsuits could be one reason why some schools and child care centers chose to remain closed, undermining the country’s economic and social recovery efforts.
During this time of great uncertainty, families should also be provided with increased financial flexibility. Families should be allowed by the government to set aside more money in their health savings accounts (HSAs). Furthermore, they should be allowed — at least temporarily — to use HSAs to pay for qualified child care expenses.
Above all, we must ensure schools are ready to welcome students back for the new school year. Government officials must make sure that the Department of Health and Human Sciences conducts rapid research and gather information on COVID-19 transmission among children, the risks to children with preexisting health issues, and what transmission risks children pose to adults, both in school and at home. The government must also see to it that students, teachers, and staff have access to coronavirus testing.
Some states have already taken action by providing child care centers with the funding they need to function so that parents can go back to work and the economy can recover. Many states, however, have yet to do so.
Fortunately, legislators in the Congress and Senate have introduced the Child Care is Essential Act, which will provide the child care industry with a $50 billion bailout to allow providers to cover operating expenses and pay their staff. This will also allow them to provide tuition and copayment relief for families, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas or come from wealthy or poor neighborhoods.
Throughout the pandemic, it has become clear that the economy can only reopen once people feel confident that it’s finally safe to return to some semblance of normalcy. It is, therefore, vital that policymakers acknowledge the importance of reliable child care and education, and develop their plans accordingly.