Opinion: Economic comeback will rely on investing in child care

With over a half century in the family care business, our organization and staff have been faced with all the familiar challenges of our field. We are accustomed to enrollment flexes, challenges of finding qualified staff, the ever-developing children’s programming, plus meeting and exceeding the guidelines of the Department of Education. But 2020 has pushed us to stretch, flex and think on our feet in ways we did not know possible. With centers closing, combining, facing new daily required practices, and flexing around at-home-learning needs, the child care industry has been through everything this year.

According to a survey conducted this summer by the NAEYC (National Association of Education of Young Children), it is estimated over 40% of U.S. child care centers will permanently close without public assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our industry head-on. On average, enrollment is down by 67%, while additional costs for staffing, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment are up substantially.

We know there is a vaccine on the horizon, as well as resources to help better control the spread of COVID-19, but overall, the future of the child care industry is alarmingly unknown. With the struggles of the last eight months paired with an uncertain future, a compounded void is being created throughout the industry.

In many ways, child care programs make our adult worlds go round; without care, parents cannot fulfill the needs of their jobs, resulting in more positions sitting open. We know that this specifically will hinder women most – it has been said that the pandemic will take women 10 years back in the workplace.

If we cannot fill open positions due to a lack of child care, unemployment rates will remain high, and our economy will continue to suffer. According to Econofact.org, ‘The longer that the childcare crisis continues, it is likely that more parents, primarily women, will need to drop out of the labor force to care for children. A full economic recovery simply cannot happen without adequate childcare.’ Child care institutions help to sustain our economic growth in state, national and global levels.

Just last week, California officials released the Master Plan for Early Learning and Childcare, an outline of the remodeling of the state’s child care system. Although the goals of the plan address many key issues in our industry, it doesn’t confront the devastating impact that COVID has had on child care providers. The plan is promising, but in the immediate term we need to face the challenges looming in our industry as we crawl through a global pandemic with the hopes of emerging intact on the other side.

While we transition back to our everyday lives, we know that working parents will need care, children will be ready to socialize, and child care programs will be needed more than ever. With enrollment down, costs rising and an economic turn to something more normal, the child care industry needs assistance, soon. For our local and national economies to get rolling in a positive direction, we need to invest in the care of our children, now more than ever.

Susan Dumars is president of Catalyst Family Inc., a non-profit based in Morgan Hill operating child care centers (Catalyst Kids) in more than 40 school districts throughout California.