While health-care professionals, first responders and others serve on the front lines of our pandemic response, there is a group of people — predominantly women — who support them. Child care workers have availed themselves to care for essential workers’ children. They go to work every day. They greet parents, likely tired and anxious, and make them feel safe enough to leave their children.
When everything else shut down, many child care providers stayed open because they knew something they’ve always known: Our economy and working families depend on them, their expertise and their dedication. It’s time we recognize that economic recovery depends on these unsung heroes. It’s time we support them, too.
As we reopen Hawaii’s economy, child care must be at the forefront of every conversation. When we discuss employees returning to their places of business, those leading these conversations must always ask, Who is caring for their kids and will those children be safe and healthy?
We are civil servants in agencies that recognize the importance of child care. But, we know the need for healthy, safe and quality care most intimately because we are mothers. When it’s time for us and our staff to be back in the office full-time, be certain we will ask who is caring for their children and are those kids in safe, nurturing, quality environments.
The answer to these questions, even for our employees, is uncertain. The Bipartisan Policy Center recently conducted a nationwide survey and found that 60% of all types of child care programs are fully closed. It’s unclear how many programs will survive to reopen. Even if they do, nearly one-half of parents surveyed worry they won’t be able to afford child care when they return to the workforce or office. Couple these results with the reality that local elementary campuses are closed, and the question becomes more critical: Who will care for our kids when we go back to our workplaces?
Before this pandemic, Hawaii had a severe child care shortage. And, the younger your child, the harder it was to find care. The Hawaii Early Learning Needs Assessment, conducted in 2017, noted that for every 37 children under age 2, there was only one center-based spot. Furthermore, the annual cost of center-based child care ran upwards of $13,000 for infants and toddlers and $8,800 for preschoolers.
To answer the question of who is caring for our employees’ children, our agencies and community partners are identifying the immediate need: Quality providers must be ready to take children as more employees return to their workplaces, and families need to be able to afford this care.
To meet this need, providers require support. They must have access to cleaning supplies and other health and safety equipment to keep staff and children safe. They also need financial support, as even providers who remain open are hurting financially as they need more staff and supplies to care for fewer children. And, they will need assurances that they face an economic recovery that highlights their work as critical and valued — work that is compensated according to its vital importance. Families facing difficulties need financial assistance too, and shouldn’t have to choose between child care and housing.
Our recovery plans also present an opportunity to develop an early childhood system that will make us proud for decades to come. As we rebuild, let’s prioritize developing a well-trained workforce through innovative education and professional development. Let’s also find more ways to ensure all children — no matter their family’s situation — get quality early care and learning.
Success requires diverse solutions coordinated and supported by the state. They can include strengthening families with publicly funded family-child interaction programs, like Tutu and Me, paid family leave, encouraging more people to pursue early childhood education careers with increased wages and tuition supports, and a mixed delivery system where private and public care options are available to all. There are things we can do in the coming months to rebuild an early childhood system that will sustain us in good times and bad.
In every conversation we have about Hawaii’s economic recovery, child care and caregiving more broadly, must be central to the conversation. Economic recovery depends on these heroes.
Lauren Moriguchi is director of the state Executive Office on Early Learning; Cathy Betts is deputy director of the state Department of Human Services.