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Myra Sawyers column: Private child care providers need emergency funding to support essential employees' families
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Child Care

Myra Sawyers column: Private child care providers need emergency funding to support essential employees' families

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Providing child care is complex and difficult even without a pandemic. Now, with tens of thousands of employees in diverse professions called upon to do essential work to move Virginia past this crisis, it’s even clearer that no single entity — not government, not the private sector — can address this crisis alone.

In the past several years, Virginia’s early education and social services leaders such as the commonwealth’s first lady, the chief school readiness officer and the Virginia Department of Social Services’ director of licensing have worked to strengthen trust and communications with the private child care industry, especially as the state has rolled out its “mixed delivery” (public-private) early education pilot and strategy.

Those efforts are now paying off as we collaborate to resolve tough issues during this unprecedented period.

The Virginia Child Care Association is a statewide professional organization of private child care facility owners and directors. Our members are uniting our unique skills, experience and training to develop creative solutions, workarounds and ideas. These efforts support our universal goal of ensuring the safety and health of Virginia’s youngest residents, while also supporting essential workers trying to protect us all.

Our industry is at an advantage in this pandemic. We have long operated in a highly regulated environment, with most requirements related to safety and health. We already had strict adherence to hygiene practices such as frequent hand-washing and use of strong cleaning agents in order to help control illness. We already are trained in emergency procedures, crisis management and crisis communications, so our families tend to be well-informed about safety and health through our regular outreach.

Where we are at a strong disadvantage, however, is that many child care facilities are family- or single-owner operated, with small profit margins and a severe teacher shortage. Economic disruption such as widescale or mandated closures would hurt their economic viability, so after the pandemic, it is unknown how many will financially be able to reopen.

Gov. Ralph Northam declared child care workers are essential personnel — and we’re proud to be in a position to help. But to do so, our industry needs government funding to underwrite child care facilities, especially those that tend to be small centers in rural areas. Regardless of size, those of us who remain open are operating at a serious financial loss right now in order to serve essential workers’ families. Child attendance is only 20% to 40%, depending on the region.

We also remain deeply concerned that when working parents are deemed essential and emergency child care is needed, grandparents often are the first people asked to step in as caregivers. Unfortunately, this is the same population most at risk of contracting COVID-19. They should not be exposing themselves to anyone, nor should they be traveling to their grandchildren’s homes, or inviting them into their own residence when social distancing from senior citizens is imperative to their safety.

These are some of the dilemmas faced by private child care owners as they weigh their operational futures. That’s in addition to the obvious need to balance risks to staff and teachers, some of whom already decided the risk of working is too great for their individual circumstances. We respect whatever decision they and their facility owner make, but the public should be aware that the state’s early-education workforce — already in short supply — has shrunk even further because of the pandemic.

As everyone advances into an uncharted landscape, we ask parents and the public for patience and understanding while our industry explores options and makes daily decisions alongside the many laudable state leaders coordinating in good faith with us.

We all want the same thing: minimal disruption of early education and safe care of young children, especially for our heroes on today’s medical front lines and the secondary workforce supporting them.

Unfortunately, there are costs to achieve this goal. We hope that as elected officials reconsider the state budget and discuss efficient allocation of new federal emergency funding, they remember the littlest voices of Virginia and those trying so hard to care for them.

Myra Sawyers is president of the Virginia Child Care Association. Contact her at: virginiachildcareassociation@gmail.com

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