Parents preparing for a return to the office following a broader county health order are now faced with weighing the benefits of enrolling their children in child care services against the existing financial burden of programs and potential exposure to COVID-19. 

“If there’s going to be a workforce recovery we need to solve this child care issue. [Employers] recognize parents are more distracted,” said Rod Hsiao, a trustee on the San Mateo County Board of Education. “Long term, if we see a worsening of the learning loss in young children that’s going to really hurt our ability to build a workforce for our community in the future. All families should care about this child care gap.” 

Hsiao is also the founder and CEO of InPlay, a nonprofit aimed at connecting youth to summer and after-school programs outside of the county. Hsiao said out-of-school programs play an integral role in child development noting a child could fall two grade levels behind their peers by the fifth grade in terms of math and reading skills by not participating in such programs. 

Although programs have proven to be beneficial to a child’s development, many of these programs have continued to rise in cost, creating an equity issue for low income earners and their children, said Hsiao. Following a rise in the cost of living in San Mateo County, parents and various education based organizations have long raised concerns for accessible child care. Now exacerbating the issue is an economic downturn brought on by a global pandemic. 

“This is a huge equity issue and we know that parents often think there are a lot of government funded programs ... but subsidized programs only serve 10% of California,” said Hsiao. “And 60% of low-income families need subsidized programs. We never met the need for families who needed it and wanted it.” 

Equitable resources

David Fleishman, the executive director of the Child Care Coordinating Council, an agency focused on providing equitable education resources to parents and care providers, echoed Hsiao’s sentiment, noting remote learning has exposed how difficult accessing a quality education can be for the community’s most vulnerable. 

To whatever extent remote learning is able to be effective, we have a fundamental need for access to that technology. ... There is a large gap for folks who can afford [computers and internet access]. In most cases the challenges that hit society hit low-income families the most,” he said. 

Additionally, social distancing requirements have reduced the size of available programs, greatly limiting accessibility. Child care providers have been tasked with interpreting what Fleishman calls “ambiguous” guidelines to provide safe care to families who need it but hiring extra staff and implementing safety procedures like sanitizers and masks can be expensive. 

“Child care providers are trying to understand what the regulations are and how to operate. It’s really tough to open when the rules aren't clear. People literally do not know how to operate when rules are changing so frequently,” said Fleishman. 

Fleishman and other leaders in the child care industry have worked to provide up-to-date information to care providers regularly while also raising funds to give grants to families for programs and child care organizers assistance to run their facilities. Similarly, Hsiao helped coordinate a panel of child care industry professionals to discuss potential solutions. 

‘Mind shift’

“We’re at a very different place in the world and need to reimagine how we educate kids. That requires a mind shift on how our formal education and schools operate. We have always recognized the value of community partners but we need to communicate more and share more. [Education officials] need to take their needs into consideration,” said Hsiao.

Hsiao said solutions include connecting corporations whose buildings remain unused with program organizers looking for safe facilities and sourcing staff from educational institution’s student bodies. He also said developing a stronger partnership between care providers and school districts is vital moving into the fall semester due to augmented school hours leaving children in the care of providers more often. 

As for distance learning, Hsiao said the education model has filled a necessary gap but lacks long-term efficiency for both educating children and providing parents with ample time to work.  

“Three months of distance learning showed all of us it’s easy for kids to disengage. They need to live actively, not just a computer program. Kids are really able to relate best with other kids and to deprive them of this social interaction with friends, shows a lot of anxiety and lack of focus,” he said. “Distance learning has improved but still misses the fact that parents can’t stay at home. They need to work and we need to provide them with child care options,” said Hsiao. 

Hesitations

Fleishman shared Hsiao’s concern for the need for child care but noted many families have been hesitant to enroll their children in programs possibly due to health concerns or because other arrangements had been made early on when school districts made the pivot to remote learning. Despite the preparation of care providers to make facilities safe for children, enrollment has fallen short of expectations. 

The future of child care services is still unknown but Fleishman sees the industry eventually moving into the public sector, noting child care providers have continued to be “undervalued and undercompensated.” 

“What [the future of early child education] will look like depends on how smart we can be and what political will is available and what funding is available,” he said.

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