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EDITORIAL: Opinion: Time is now to seek solutions to child care troubles

Yakima Herald-Republic - 2/28/2021

Feb. 28—The pandemic giveth, and the pandemic taketh away.

Mostly, it seems, the pandemic taketh away — by illness and death, by restrictions on our daily activities and whom we can visit, by restrictions on our ability to make a living. These are dark times — 500,000 dead across America so far — and the months continue to drag by as we battle to gain control over the novel coronavirus.

But in some significant ways, the pandemic giveth. Amid the tragedy and the limitations of the COVID-19 era, many of us have taken the opportunity to slow down, reexamine our priorities and be more thankful for what we have. We have gotten things done. We have sympathized, but more important, we have empathized.

The pandemic has thrown the spotlight on many issues of disparity in which the core problem is growing worse. Across the state but particularly in areas of Central Washington where wide gaps between incomes and outcomes remain, child care is one such issue.

The problems in the statewide world of child care are deep and ongoing. But as they've gotten worse, they've also gained more badly needed attention.

The world of child care is now the focus of a reporting series led by Herald-Republic education journalist Janelle Retka, who over the coming weeks plans to "explore the local child care industry — why it's important and where it's failing children, families, providers and our economy."

Solutions are admittedly evasive. The series will explore not just the problems but the possibilities for reform.

It's a topic with cringeworthy statistics. Many child care providers have struggled to remain in operation. As of mid-January, 35 providers had closed since the beginning of the pandemic in Yakima County, among 712 licensed programs to close either temporarily or permanently in that time statewide.

Even before those closures, much of Yakima County was considered a child care desert — meaning far greater demand for care compared with available licensed slots.

All this has been happening as the state is pushing for child care centers to focus more on early learning for their younger clients, thus assuring that more children are ready for kindergarten.

"State data shows that students with foundational skills like listening to instructions, sharing, holding a pencil and understanding the concept of numbers prior to entering kindergarten are more likely to meet standards on third grade math and reading exams," Retka wrote. "Those are in turn indicators of whether students are likely to graduate from high school."

As with every other small business across the state, child care centers can use all the government attention they can get. The Legislature recently dedicated $50 million of a $2.2 billion allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds for grants to help child care centers stay open and expand. Licensed providers can seek $6,500 or more in grants.

We applaud this allocation, but in all likelihood it won't be nearly enough to solve an issue this complex and with this much history. It will take more: More centers and more slots, more licensed caregivers, more help with supplies, more support from parents and communities and, yes, more money. Meanwhile, as ideas are contemplated, these questions must be answered: Is the proposed solution or reform adequate and is it sustainable?

Child care centers are no longer looked upon as expensive babysitting but instead as one of the first steps toward long-term success in school and beyond. Floundering on this issue is sure to mean a continuation of a widening education gap. For the sake of our children, it only makes sense to keep pressing for sustainable solutions now, pandemic or not.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Greg Halling, Joanna Markell and Bruce Drysdale.


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