Dec 17, 2020

Learey: Working together to make child care work

December is a busy month for constituents to catch up with our legislators before they are consumed by the beginning of the session next month. Our Windham County delegation had the inspired idea of holding virtual office hours for groups to sign up and share what is on happening in the region and what we are thinking about as we head into 2021.

The Child Care Counts coalition, Let’s Grow Kids, and the Southeastern Vermont Building Bright Futures Council joined forces for a conversation with our delegation about child care during COVID – what went well, what are the challenges, and what lessons can we take forward to improve access, affordability, and quality. The challenges of the pandemic have magnified long-standing issues in child care: there are not enough slots, it is very expensive, and quality is variable as families turn to unregulated care to meet their needs. The impact on employers has also been highlighted as essential personnel struggled to find care and remote schooling caused some employees to have to quit their jobs or significantly change their work to adapt to their children being home. Child care is not just an issue for families to face alone, it is one that impacts us all, and the economic health of our community relies on a robust system of care for multiple reasons. Child care is a business that contributes to the local economy; it allows people to go to work, from the hospital to the grocery store; and it supports the foundational growth of our future workforce. It is not often you can hit three birds with one stone, but child care is an investment that pays dividends in multiple ways.

The investment made over the course of the past several months through CARES Act funding has made a tremendous impact in helping child care programs in our region stay in business through the shutdown and during the re-opening when added expenses for PPE and staffing, and lost tuition could have been a death knell for many in the sector. It will be important to explore how funding streams like Child Care Financial Assistance and public pre-K can play a larger role in providing financial resources to the childcare system. One of the conundrums of child care as a business model is how to increase revenue without increasing tuition for families who are already paying the equivalent of a mortgage payment for care so they can go to work. The headline in a recent Washington Post article says it all: “The cost of child care was already astronomical. In the pandemic, it is ‘terrifying’.” Child care does not just benefit families, it benefits everyone in a community, and so we need to figure out how to increase public investment in this public good.

Another challenge in child care is finding teachers who are willing to work for wages that are much lower than those paid to other educators. Cultivating the workforce is a significant initiative, and programs such as the Early Childhood Education track at the Windham Regional Career Center are key to helping students get college credit while still in high school. This makes it more affordable to be in the profession without taking on large student loans, but it is not a long-term solution. Ultimately, we will need to pay early childhood teachers at a rate that reflects the value of their work and contribution to multiple aspects of our economy.

A final piece of this complicated puzzle is maintaining and expanding the availability of child care. Prior to the pandemic, there were not enough slots for the number of families who were looking for care, and this continues to get worse. Even if the physical space exists to open another classroom, where will you find the teachers to staff it? And how will you pay them enough to get them to stay?

This is a puzzle whose solution requires a multi-layered response across different sectors and government departments. It requires an understanding of state and federal funding streams and programs, and creative thinking across silos so that we can come together to make child care work for everyone – children, families, businesses, and communities. We are fortunate to have a legislative delegation from Windham County who understands that this is a complicated landscape and stands ready to advocate for investing in our future by supporting a robust child care system.

Chloe Learey is the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council, as well as chair of the Child Care Counts coalition. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

Click here to read this commentary on the Brattleboro Reformer's website.

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