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Editorial: Recovery won't get far without child care help
Austin American-Statesman - 5/22/2020
Child care centers will play a critical role in helping Texans to get back to work after weeks of coronavirus closures. But the facilities serving some 1.1 million Texas children need something more than state-issued health protocols and sanitation guidelines.
They need a financial lifeline.
Day care facilities have long run on tight margins, struggling to cover high operating costs while keeping prices as affordable as possible for working families. In the fragile balancing act before COVID-19, day care costs for a 4-year-old ate up 12% of the typical Texas family's income, and day care for an infant cost more per year than in-state college tuition -- even as the typical child care worker earned just $11 an hour.
And now? Child care facilities will face additional expenses under Gov. Greg Abbott's coronavirus guidelines -- disposable gloves needed for every diaper change, constant cleaning of bedding and toys, among other things -- while taking a major revenue hit.
For obvious safety reasons, fewer children will be allowed at Texas day cares while the coronavirus threat remains: Only 10 3-year-olds per caregiver, instead of the 15 previously allowed. Only 10 4-year-olds per caregiver, instead of the 18 previously allowed. Only 10 5-year-olds per caregiver, instead of the 22 previously allowed.
Fewer spots mean fewer families paying for services, even as the day care has the same operating costs. Many centers can't afford to operate that way without some kind of state aid.
Numerous other states have used federal coronavirus relief dollars to provide grants to child care facilities. Texas should do the same.
"Helping child care providers financially survive the pandemic is really important if you want parents to eventually go back to work to rebuild the economy and you want infants and toddlers to get the support they need during the critical early years of brain development," David Feigen, a policy associate at Texans Care for Children, told us. With day cares collecting tuition for fewer kids now, he said, "the math only works if they are getting enough financial support from the state, including federal coronavirus relief dollars."
So far, Texas' aid has been more narrowly drawn. For the past two months, the state provided child care subsidies for essential workers. In addition, for low-income families already receiving subsidized child care, the state continued to pay providers even if they were closed or the child did not attend, and the state covered the portion of the bill that parents would normally pick up.
Those investments were helpful, if limited. As we noted in the pre-coronavirus era, Texas' pot of dollars for subsidized child care reached only one-sixth of the households that qualify for the help. Many other families, and the day cares serving them, still need a hand.
Now that Abbott has given day care centers the green light to reopen to the general public, the Texas Workforce Commission voted this past week to start phasing out some pieces of coronavirus aid, though it's adding other programs. Starting June 1, the state will make "stabilization grants" available for day cares that remain closed.
Still needing help: The child care facilities struggling with the economics of staying open for the families that need them.
Other states are providing this kind of aid. For instance, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recently pledged to use more than $60 million in federal CARES Act funding for reopening grants for day cares, noting the facilities in his state will reopen May 31 with reduced enrollment and extra safety measures.
"Childcare is going to look different for children, parents, and teachers as long as #COVID19 is around," DeWine tweeted. "But we must get this right, or we run the risk of exposing more individuals."
The same holds true in Texas, which received nearly $372 million in child care funds through the CARES Act. Officials should direct some of those dollars to the day care centers working to keeping their doors open with fewer kids to pay the bills.
The reopening of Texas' economy won't get far without day care centers providing safe, quality care so working parents can return to their jobs. But for many of Texas' 9,500 child care centers and in-home day cares, the coronavirus has upended the economics of providing that care. Until the crisis passes, the state must provide the financial lifeline those families and facilities need.
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