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Editorial: Child care access crucial to recovery

Access to licensed and affordable child care centers enable working families to give children a strong start toward success in school and in life. Even so, in Hawaii, the demand for such centers has long outstripped supply.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were only enough child care center seats available to serve 1 in 4 children under age 5, Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, told the state House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness this week.

As we prepare to further restart public life, that shortfall will go from worrisome to worse unless care centers are recognized and supported as a critical piece in the economic-recovery puzzle.

Statewide, scores of child care facilities have remained open to families included in the essential- worker bracket. Now, along with various retail and other businesses poised to reopen, still-shuttered child care operators are sizing up social-distancing and other public health challenges.

Guidance for child care programs issued last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressed that no matter the level of transmission in a community, every program should have a plan in place to protect staff, children and their families from the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to measures such as intensified cleaning and disinfection as well as modified child dropoff and pickup procedures, the CDC advises maintaining an adequate staff-to-children ratio to ensure safety. Such a ratio, Zysman said, will strain the current economic model for many centers as it places children in smaller groups and requires more staff.

Helping to keep centers afloat here and elsewhere is the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security), which includes $3.5 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the primary federal grant program supporting child care for low-income families.

Hawaii’s share is nearly $12 million, with funding going directly to state and local governments. Swift distribution of this grant funding should be prioritized. In the absence of such relief, along with other public funds and private philanthropy, some providers could be quickly forced out of business, leaving cash-strapped families with even fewer child care options.

Also, in tandem with the state Executive Office on Early Learning (EOEL), the state Department of Human Services has taken helpful steps to assist the early childhood sector. Last month, DHS expanded eligibility for its Child Care Connection Hawai‘i subsidies, making more money available to providers and households in which access to child care is essential to livelihoods.

In addition, the agency extended through Friday the application period for the 2020-21 Preschool Open Doors program, which offers child care subsidies for children in the year prior to kindergarten.

While private operators provide the bulk of early education here, the state Education Department offers preschool to about 1,600 students needing special education and the EOEL oversees preschool classrooms, with capacity for 880 children. The federal Head Start program, meanwhile, has funding for 2,200 preschoolers.

Moving forward, Zysman said, success in gradually reopening of the economy — and avoiding the threat of a spike in COVID-19 infections — will hinge on a coordinated public-private effort. “This is really going to take all of us,” she told the House committee.

In this pandemic landscape, and after, the early- childhood sector will be key to sustaining a healthy economy. But the potential for robust recovery will be undercut if families returning to work lack sufficient access to quality child care.

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