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Fresh Air and Fresh Ideas: How Child Care Providers Are Thinking Outside the Box During the Pandemic — and Why Child Care Must Be Part of the Coronavirus Recovery

In a Kauai community, gardens and other outdoor spaces might serve as a new learning environment for young children this fall, as child care providers across our state and country consider how to protect families and children from the coronavirus.

Child care providers are making challenging decisions, and are navigating complicated and sometimes contradictory regulations. I heard about these challenges in a Zoom call during the recent state work period with child care providers from Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island.

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Senator Hirono and the child care providers take a photo during their Zoom conversation.

During our meeting, we discussed the challenges they have encountered to provide child care for Hawaii families during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these Hawaii providers have closed sites, reduced hours, or made other changes to protect workers, children, and families. Some now face the real possibility of permanent closure.

Despite these challenges, the providers are committed to being there for children and families that need child care. They are finding creative solutions to engage and support their community and the children they serve, from more outdoor time to encouraging family members to help their Hawaiian language immersion students.

Without these providers there can be no economic recovery. We need to be there for them, too.

We already know the benefits of child care. As so many working parents know, high-quality child care provides important benefits for children during a critical time in their development and lays a foundation for their success in school and later in life.

Child care also benefits businesses and the economy. Reliable programs allow parents to be productive in the workforce, and, without them, many workers will have to decide between returning to work and caring for children — especially those in the hospitality and retail industries, where the ability to telework or work from home is limited.

Businesses in Hawaii are eager to reopen, but cannot do so without reliable child care programs.

We have not made the necessary investments in child care programs. Despite knowing that child care benefits our community, we have not made the necessary investments in child care programs.

Even before the pandemic, child care shortages were widespread and providers were financially strained. Now, faced with declining enrollments, decreased revenues, and increased expenses, these same providers are even more strained, threatening to make shortages even worse.

Hawaii’s Early Childhood Action Strategy (ECAS), a statewide public-private collaborative focused on improving child care for Hawaii’s children and families, recently surveyed child care providers in the state to learn more about the challenges and barriers they have experienced due to the pandemic.

What they learned confirmed what many of us have heard — during this difficult time, providers have been working longer hours to balance their normal responsibilities with new guidelines and safety precautions to protect workers, children, and families, while also making sure they can provide services that meet the social and emotional needs of children.

Providers have experienced other challenges, too — like having difficulty finding personal protective equipment, disinfectants, and cleaning supplies.

The message is clear: we must support child care providers so they, in turn, can support the workforce that is needed to restart our economy — and Congress needs to play an important role to provide them with financial help.

I have advocated for Congress to invest in child care programs before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, Congress had already been working to provide investments in child care programs.

Last year, for example, Congress provided $5.82 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program (CCDBG) in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, building on the substantial increases CCDBG received in FY2018 ($5.23 billion) and FY2019 ($5.28 billion). These funding increases are the result of tireless advocacy and commitment from organizations and individuals dedicated to providing for children. Through years of concerted effort, the program has received billions more in funding. Last year, in FY2020, CCDBG received nearly $3 billion more than it received in FY2017. This follows similar increases in FY2018 and FY2019.

Earlier this year, Senate Democrats requested another increase for CCDBG in FY2021, proposing $10.82 billion for the program to provide a continued investment in our nation’s child care programs.

We have also been working to make sure programs are affordable for working and middle class families through the Child Care for Working Families Act, which Senate Democrats reintroduced last year to improve access to high-quality programs.

While recent increases to CCDBG represented strong investments when they were made, the pandemic has presented challenges that hardly anyone could have anticipated.

Child care programs need additional assistance.

The pandemic makes clear that more investment is needed. Congress has provided some new funding in child care programs during the pandemic, but additional investments are needed to address the scale of the problem.

On March 27, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which provided an additional $3.5 billion for CCDBG to help child care programs respond to and recover from the coronavirus. The CARES Act also provided funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, which some of the Hawaii providers have used to pay their staff and cover other expenses.

Later, on May 15, House Democrats passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), which would provide an additional $7 billion for CCDBG. But Senate Republicans have refused to consider this important legislation, and have yet to consider other proposals.

Now, House Democrats are set to pass child care funding legislation later this week, including legislation I recently joined my colleagues to introduce in the Senate — the Child Care is Essential Act (CCEA). The bill would provide an additional $50 billion for child care programs — including around $173.3 million for Hawaii programs.

With this funding, Hawaii child care providers could cover payroll, rent, utilities, insurance, and other expenses. Providers could pay for cleaning supplies and PPE. They could provide training for workers on health and safety practices.

In return, they would be required to continue paying their staff members and provide families with tuition and copayment assistance.

Relief funding for child care providers can’t wait. The National Women’s Law Center estimates that it would take $9.6 billion per month to keep child care providers in business. Senate Republicans must consider the scale of this crisis — and respond accordingly.

The Republican strategy of delaying and underfunding programs that benefit working people and families shows their misplaced priorities. Instead of meeting this moment by considering a serious proposal to help our communities, Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader McConnell, decided to take a “pause.” They have resisted recognizing the devastating severity of the pandemic — and its consequences on all facets of American life. Families are already making painful decisions about which bills to pay, how to put food on the table, and how to keep their families safe as schools prepare to re-open.

Senate Republicans have their heads in the sand. There is no indication they will consider an adequate plan that makes child care more affordable and accessible across the country anytime soon — or take any other extensive action to help families or working people, for that matter.

Republicans time and again have chosen to prop up corporations and the wealthiest Americans instead of providing adequate support for working families, including funding for child care programs. While they complain about the price tag of providing for families, they were more than happy to pass a 2017 $1.5 trillion tax plan for the benefit of the richest 1 percent of individuals and corporations in America.

Republicans must get their priorities straight. That means making serious investments in our nation’s families through quality, affordable child care — now.

We must reimagine how child care might work after coronavirus. The coronavirus has made it clear that America can no longer avoid addressing its staggering child care shortage. We can no longer afford to ignore child care programs. Without providing parents across the country with access to high-quality, affordable child care programs, we seriously risk our nation’s efforts to meaningfully recover from the pandemic.

The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic revealed deep inequities in our country. It should move us to make changes that really matter — one of which is recognizing the importance of quality child care and funding it accordingly.

Written by

U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono - Proudly Serving the People of Hawaii

U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono - Proudly Serving the People of Hawaii

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