KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic in March 2020, the U.S. government has passed three significant relief bills which set aside money for child care.
Centers like the three United Inner City Services (UICS) run in Kansas City, Missouri, have struggled throughout the pandemic. Most earn money only when enrolled children attend the facility. The pandemic forced child care facilities to close for roughly two months, therefore they weren’t making money.
Once reopened, centers had new costs of buying personal protective equipment, disinfectant, plastic barriers and so on. At UISC only about 65 to 75 percent of children returned as families changed their routines or cut costs during the pandemic.
Laying off teachers wasn’t a cost-saving option for administrators like UICS’s CEO Deidre Anderson.
“While there may be fewer children in the classroom every day, we need just as many staff every day to best support with them with, what we call, the ‘big feelings’ they show up with on a regular basis,” Anderson pointed out; adding that good teachers are hard to come by.
So Anderson and many other child care facilities have looked to the government for financial assistance.
In March 2020, the CARES Act sent $66 million to Missouri and $31 million to Kansas specifically to help child care facilities.
In December 2020, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act sent another $185 million to Missouri and $89 million to Kansas.
Most recently, the American Rescue Plan bookmarked $722 million for Missouri and $348 million in Kansas.
Leaving Missouri with a total of $973 million for child care. Kansas ended up with about half that amount, at $468 million.
“We knew the child care system was very fragile and this really kind of set it over the tipping point,” explained Paula Neth, the CEO of The Family Conservancy.
The nonprofit in Kansas City, Kansas, focuses on helping improve the quality of early childhood education.
Neth admitted over the past year, her agency’s role pivoted to mostly helping child care centers stay open. The Family Conservancy formed a regional task force and held informational webinars.
Nonetheless, Neth estimates about 150 child care centers in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area closed permanently during the pandemic. That means there are 1,640 fewer spots available for children.
Neth’s group is at the table where states discuss how to best spend the money from the federal government.
Most of the money from the CARES Act was distributed in the form of grants to cover immediate needs.
Both states plan to use a grant system to cover a variety of child care center needs. Kansas plans to use the money to cover fees when someone opens a facility in a “child care desert,” defined as a community with more than three children for every one opening at a licensed facility. Advocates say the pandemic created more deserts.
Missouri wants to find a way to use the money to help higher education facilities expand to take on early childhood education.
States have yet to release plans for the most recent funding allotment from the American Rescue Plan.
“I don't think we really realize the important part of the infrastructure that child care is in a community,” Neth said. “Just like bridges and roads, a lot of parents need child care to get to work.”
Both Neth and Anderson remain optimistic about the future of child care, calling it a silver lining to the pandemic that it put such a spotlight on the importance of the service.
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