For all the talk of West Virginia’s comeback, the reality for families is still incredibly challenging. Parents can’t go back to work if they don’t have a safe place for their kids to go for child care. The success of our comeback will depend in part on mitigating the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on child care providers, as the sector will play a critical role in our state’s economic recovery.
West Virginia’s child care capacity was limited prior to COVID-19- both in terms of accessibility and affordability. There are approximately 68,736 children under the age of six in West Virginia who have all available parents in their household in the work force, meaning they will likely need child care. It’s important to note that these aren’t the only families who need child care during the day. Parents with other responsibilities and those with children older than six often need child care as well.
Statewide West Virginia had just over 38,000 licensed child care slots across child care centers, licensed homes, and school-age care programs prior to COVID-19. To put that in perspective, there are an estimated 3.27 children for every available slot in in the state. But COVID-19 forced child care centers to close their doors during statewide stay-at-home orders. Since April, state policy has allowed centers to be temporarily certified as registered critical care centers in order to reopen their doors. Under this policy, more than half of all home-based and professional centers have reopened, with 21,541 slots, or about 56 percent of all licensed providers, currently available for children, many of them children of essential workers.
West Virginia is currently providing child care assistance for any parent who has been deemed an essential worker and will provide funding directly to providers at an enhanced rate for the duration of the crisis or as funding remains.
At the same time, practically every sector of our economy has reopened at this point, finding many parents in a scenario where they’ve been called back to work without a safe or accessible option for child care for their children.
These challenges for families aren’t new. Like many other issues, the COVID-19 economic crisis has only exacerbated them. A longstanding issue prior to COVID-19, 64 percent of West Virginians live in a child care desert, designated when a community has at least 50 children under age 5 with no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.
While the state’s child care capacity issues aren’t new, they could get much worse. The Center for American Progress, utilizing surveys from child care providers, found that nationally 4.5 million child care slots are at risk of being permanently lost due to the COVID-19 crisis. In West Virginia, they estimate that 20,346 slots, or over half of all licensed child care in the state, are at risk due to child care centers being unable to reopen or stay reopened after a lengthy closure period. If that worst-case scenario came to fruition, West Virginia would lose even more capacity, going from 3.27 children for every licensed child care slot to 7.43 children per slot.
Child care providers operate on extremely thin margins and can struggle to stay in business if they are not consistently receiving pay for every slot they have or every child enrolled. For child care centers that have remained open, their costs have increased in order to follow COVID-19 guidelines. For example, many had to implement smaller child-to-staff ratios and increased sanitization practices. While the state is currently providing an enhanced payment rate to centers operating as critical care centers, these guidelines will be likely in place for some time. These new costs make a challenging business model even more difficult.
Going forward, federal action will be needed to ensure that capacity isn’t lost. The CARES Act allocated $3.5 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) for child care funds, of which West Virginia received approximately $23 million. Those funds are being used to cover the cost of free child care for the state’s essential workers. Advocates are raising alarms that an additional $50 billion will be needed to support child care centers who’ve lost income during the crisis in order to maintain capacity. West Virginia would receive approximately $326 million under this plan to support child care providers and families, keeping child care workers employed and slots open for families that need them.
At the state level a recession that reduces typical revenue sources, like the one we are facing, could threaten existing state investments in child care or future improvement efforts. Further strain to the system will likely come from a pandemic-caused increase in the number of families eligible for child care subsidies. While it may sound counterintuitive during a recession when policymakers are looking to cut costs, this is a time to increase investment in child care capacity. Our recovery is linked to whether parents are able to go back to work.
State investment in child care can help increase the supply of safe, high-quality child care options for families. This should include allocating dedicated resources to build supply in our state’s child care deserts by renovating and constructing programs, investing in current providers to improve quality and expand their capacity, and licensing existing family child care homes.
We must also invest in the state’s child care workforce. Currently, child care professionals are paid low-wages and often don’t have access to benefits like health coverage or a career ladder. Adequate compensation and professional development are critical components of high-quality programs, which all families want. Increasing the state reimbursement rates for providers would allow for higher wages to flow to workers.
Our economy will not thrive without safe, accessible, and quality child care for all families. Our system fell short of serving all families before COVID-19, and there is real danger that it will be worse off after COVID-19 without quick action from state and federal lawmakers.