The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that included funds to help child-care providers make the necessary modifications to their facilities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Moving Forward Act specifically allocates $10 billion over the next four years to finance grants to improve child-care centers, including construction, renovations and improvement to facilities to address both longstanding issues and new challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The legislation calls for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct an assessment of the conditions within the child-care industry in order to ensure that funds are being distributed in a way that improves the availability of quality child care and that funding is given to centers that demonstrate high need. The grants will be distributed across public and private sectors.
"The Moving Forward Act recognizes that child care is infrastructure, central to rebuilding our economy, stabilizing our workforce and educating our children," Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said Wednesday in a floor speech in support of the bill. "The pandemic has pushed this vital sector to its breaking point and we cannot afford to let it fail."
About 60% of child-care programs temporarily closed at some point during the last four months due to coronavirus, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. While states are starting to allow child-care facilities to reopen, providers may be slow to return because of strict capacity and operating rules that create financial burdens.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a number of recommendations for day cares, preschools and child-care facilities to ensure the safety of children, families, teachers and employees as programs start to reopen. These guidelines include implementing social distancing strategies such as spacing out seating and nap areas, restricting classroom sizes, limiting the mixing and interaction of children and curbing the use of shared toys, supplies and learning aids as much as possible.
State regulators are also providing mandates for child-care providers, but the rules vary widely. In Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Early Education and Care issued a 32-page guidance that, among other protocols, limits class sizes to a maximum of 10 children and sets up specific teacher-to-child ratios based on the age of the kids. But guidance from other states around the optimal class size and provider-to-child ratios varies.
For some child-care centers, the pandemic is already proving too much and they will never reopen their doors. In Alaska, five Anchorage-based providers out of 244 total in the area closed permanently since the pandemic broke out, according to Thread, an organization focused on supporting early childhood education. Across the state, 69% of all programs are open, but many of those are only serving 30% to 50% of their capacity.
Overall, the U.S. could lose up to 4.5 million child-care slots if providers can't weather the shutdown and reopening process, the Center for American Progress estimates.
Permanent closures would not only result in job losses, but may also increase the cost of child care. Widespread closures could force parents to seek out new, more expensive programs. Among day cares, preschools and child-care facilities that do come back, some may need to increase the cost of tuition in order to afford smaller class sizes, additional staff and PPE supplies.
"The Covid-19 health and economic crisis has pushed an already-struggling child-care industry to the brink of collapse, and important but costly new health and safety measures will force providers even farther into the red," says Sarah Rittling, executive director of early childhood education advocacy organization the First Five Years Fund.
The inclusion of child care in Wednesday's legislation reinforces lawmakers' understanding that child care is essential to the infrastructure of the U.S. and the need to prioritize such investments as a way to underpin the broader economy, Rittling adds. "We look forward to continuing our work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to find effective solutions to the challenges facing our nation's child care providers and the families they serve."
In addition to the Moving Forward Act, several Democratic lawmakers introduced the Child Care is Essential Act at the end of May. That legislation would create a $50 billion "child-care stabilization fund" to provide grants to help pay for personnel, sanitation, training and other costs associated with reopening and running a child-care facility right now.
In the House of Representatives, the Child Care is Essential Act has been assigned to the House Budget committee and currently only has about a 5% chance of being enacted, according to predictive intelligence firm Skopos Labs.
"American businesses and families are asking for relief to keep the child-care industry from collapsing in the short-term and for robust funding to sustain the industry in the future," says Lynette Fraga, CEO of Child Care Aware of America. "It's time for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to step up and give child care the support it deserves."
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