Helping with child care during pandemic and reopening of the economy

Benton and Tama counties – The workforce behind the workforce is suffering right now, but we can’t reopen with it.

As parts of Iowa begin to reopen their economies this month—previously shut-down amid the COVID-19 pandemic—a critical piece of infrastructure might be missing for some working families: child care.

Iowa has one of the highest rates of working parents with young children under age six in the U.S.—75% versus 66% nationally, according to a February report from Early Childhood Iowa (ECI) and Iowa State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shortfall of more than 350,000 child care slots across Iowa with 25% of Iowans living in what is considered a child care desert—a census tract in which there are three or more kids for every child care slot.

Four of seven tracts in Benton County qualify as child care deserts and in Tama County, three of six tracts qualify.

In the weeks ahead, as hundreds of shuttered child care centers and licensed child care homes—closed due to budget constraints and/or COVID-19 health guidelines—attempt to reopen, the importance of this workforce behind the workforce will be center stage.

The announcement by Iowa DHS on May 5, 2020, of $31.9 million in federal aid to Iowa from the Coronvirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for child care support may have arrived just in time for some centers and provider homes.

A statewide survey conducted last month by the Iowa Department of Human Services found nearly 13% of licensed child care centers and/or preschools are not expecting to reopen or unsure of whether they will reopen in the wake of the pandemic.

Erin Monaghan, Director of Benton-Tama Early Childhood Iowa (ECI), conducted a local survey in April of the child care centers and registered home providers in her coverage area and the findings were concerning.

“Many of the open child care facilities have no kids or very few kids are officially open and able to provide care in order to receive the child care assistance payments from the state during the pandemic,” Monaghan said. “But just because they are open doesn’t mean they can easily take in new kids.”

Current health guidelines limit child care rooms to 10 kids or less, while new kids to a program must be quarantined from the rest of the facility for 14 days.

“New kids practically have to come in as a unit and there have to be enough kids in the unit to justify paying one to two staff to be in the new room,” Monaghan said.

Monaghan received back lengthy responses to her survey request from child care providers throughout Benton and Tama counties—answers were shared on the premise of remaining anonymous citing privacy concerns.

“We currently are open for essential working families,” one child care provider wrote, but then indicated they have had to lay off staff and cut pay to the staff still working due to declining enrollment.

“Our staff not working are unemployed and I have spoken to them and some are willing to return but others are scared to return for their health and safety at the moment.”

The provider further wrote, “Financially it is hard to operate a child care facility. Bills still need to be paid, maintenance to the building still needs to be maintained…food still needs to be purchased, and payroll.”

The narrative was the same from almost every center or home provider who responded to Monaghan’s survey—enrollment is significantly down, staff has been furloughed, pay has been cut to those still working, supplies are increasingly hard to find, hours of operation have been slashed—but the bills still keep coming.

One particular child care center in Monaghan’s coverage area has experienced a 70% decline in gross revenue.

“Most of the children I’m taking care of, their parents are essential workers in the health care field,” a provider wrote. “I am getting low on rubber gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks. Maybe it is over the top but when the children and I go for a walk in our neighborhood, we wear masks in case a child would get too close to another family walking.”

A common refrain from those who answered Monaghan’s survey was a plea to remember child care workers are essential, too—they are literally the workforce behind the workforce—and they are doing all they can to stay afloat.

“I went to college for early childhood education and have a great passion for working with children. This pandemic has affected my entire job, mental and emotional health, income, and thoughts on whether I should continue what I do or not,” wrote one survey respondent.

“I keep six families working,” the respondent continued. “We are stressed, we are tired, we are nervous, we are scared, we are losing income, we are unable to predict the outcome of our business after this pandemic, and we are most of all worried for the future…we try to work with parents on paying but have to think about [the] business as well. I just wish we were treated as an equal in essential. I have the same amount of bills due.”

Since 2014 and pre-COVID-19, Iowa has lost 40% of its child care providers, according to the Iowa Women’s Foundation (IWF), an organization that has been working to highlight the lack of access to quality, affordable childcare in Iowa and the subsequent negative effects on the economy.

IWF issued a policy brief in 2019 with specific recommendations for how the state can increase the availability of quality affordable child care, strengthen the Iowa workforce, and invest smartly in Iowa’s communities.

Before suspending this year’s session due to the pandemic, the Iowa legislature had a slew of bills on its agenda addressing the child care shortage.

Those working in child care and on behalf of child care centers and providers across the state—like Monaghan—hope the months and years ahead don’t put this valuable work even further behind.

“The challenges that have come during this time are tough but not insurmountable,” a child care center director wrote in response to Monaghan’s survey. “If there is no avenue for assistance to childcare providers during this trying time, the state of Iowa will see an unprecedented shortage of child care options [from] which it will never recover.”

In an effort to keep the child care crisis centered in the conversation, as well as champion providers as the workforce behind the workforce, Early Childhood Iowa is celebrating Friday, May 8, 2020, as Provider Appreciation Day. Thank you to all child care providers for creating nurturing early learning environments for Iowa’s young children.

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