COVID-19 exposes shortcomings in nation’s childcare safety net

By Andrew Myers

Nearly lost amid the consuming coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has been one looming question: Who’s watching the first responders’ children while they are out fighting the worst health crisis since 1918? The answer, more or less, is no one. Public facilities at local schools are closed and the number of private providers who remain open is dwindling by the day.

In Maryland, at least, childcare will close to all but essential workers on March 27th and the State Department of Education has subsidized 1,200 slots at the Y of Central Maryland and other state-funded programs specifically for children of first responders and hospital workers at no cost. But this is not the case in every state.

This stark reality is no surprise to Chris Swanson, director of the IDEALS Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, which is dedicated to improving childcare nationwide. Swanson studies the challenges and solutions to today’s childcare crunch.

“MSDE is taking the lead nationally to ensure provision of childcare to first responder families in order to ensure those personnel can stay focused on their critical jobs, but nationwide this is a perfect storm. You can’t staff an emergency room, an ICU or drive-through testing clinic if the nurses, technicians, microbiologists, firemen and EMTs, can’t find any childcare, much less qualified care for their kids,” Swanson says.

He notes that childcare was in a crisis before COVID-19, but now we are in an all-out war, not just against the virus, but for the future of childcare in America. While he applauds efforts by groups like the Y of Central Maryland, Swanson says more aggressive measures may be needed such as fully subsidizing programs to ensure availability of care for critical personnel.

In the short-term, Swanson says state and local officials nationwide can do several things to alleviate the problem for first responders. First, state officials should allocate emergency funding they receive from the federal government through the Childcare Develop Fund (CCDF) to any provider serving a child of a person designated as critical health care personnel and to supplement those dollars with state funds to a level that would cover 100 percent of the tuition for the child’s care.

“It would be an expansion of the mechanisms already in place to serve children from low-income households, based on prioritized role without regard to that the financial means of that family,” Swanson says.

Second, Swanson says that governors and regulators should suspend some licensing regulations to consolidate childcare sites, permit more kids than regulations allow into facilities in underserved areas and bring in additional qualified adult caregivers to those facilities — but only on a short-term basis, he asserts.

Swanson notes that much of the private childcare market is made up of licensed providers working from their own homes. Easing licensing regulations would allow new providers into the market temporarily to meet demand during the public health crisis.

The increase in money and capacity flowing in the system would help alleviate the current dearth of care for first responders, Swanson points out. It also would highlight the wider crisis in childcare of an undervalued profession that plays a critical role to daily societal functioning.

To fix the problems for the long term, Swanson says, we as a nation can take measures like establishing a large pool of substitute care providers ready to step in in an emergency. These people already would be fingerprinted, background checked, and licensed so they could deploy quickly any time there is an emergency that requires first responders in great numbers.

“The current system for substitutes lacks a strong infrastructure needed for emergencies like this,” he adds.

The next thing Swanson calls for are enshrining efforts to expand access to public pre-k into a required mixed-delivery model: ensuring that we have a balanced combination of private and public care facilities paid for by the government to serve qualified preschool-aged children.  As is evident with the unfolding COVID crisis, when public schools close, so do the public pre-K childcare centers that many depend upon.

He proposes instead that employers – public or private institutions, and particularly those that employ first responders – buy full-time slots for childcare that is then passed on to employees. This strategy would  go a long way to shoring up another long-term challenge of the childcare industry: chronic low pay. The average childcare worker in the United States makes $21,000 per year, Swanson notes, and this infusion of capital from businesses and governmental agencies would provide much needed dependable capital to increase salaries.

Swanson stipulates these efforts need to be anchored within quality improvement efforts like the Maryland EXELS system, run in partnerships between the Maryland State Department of Education and the IDEALS Institute.

“Almost fifteen percent of caregivers are working full-time and still living below the federal poverty line,” Swanson says. “The system needs to change.”