Myra Alves Garcia Sawyers and Kimberly Womack Hulcher Column: Stabilizing Child Care in Virginia

Without stable, accessible and safe child care, Virginia will not be able to recover from the brutal economic outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic.  That statement is stark but true.

In the earliest days of the virus, Gov. Ralph Northam deemed child care providers as “essential,” recognizing their critical role as safe havens for children of front-line workers ranging from grocery store clerks to emergency room physicians.  And yet few industries have been as hard-hit as child care providers.

In our state alone, the pandemic has closed more than 60% of licensed child care centers, reducing the number of slots for children by 210,000.  Those providers that remain open might not be able to survive the financial struggle for much longer.  Despite receiving some aid through the initial CARES Act grants, assistance has been both inadequate and slow or nonexistent.

The Virginia Child Care Association (VCCA) – a professional association of state-licensed private child care businesses and directors – has continued to survey, interview and convene our members to monitor the crisis on the ground.  We have shared their resourceful, creative responses with state and local agencies and officials, working together to adapt to rapidly changing conditions in ways that support working families, and keep children safe and learning.

However, we know from members’ stories and our data that – as mainly small businesses – private child care providers continue to lose money, to barely break even and/or to accumulate business-related debt on personal credit cards as a desperate means to hold on.  The situation is not sustainable.

Providers’ budgets cannot bear the heavy costs of extra cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment, mandated lower capacity and hazard pay for employees.  Their emergency reserves are depleted.  Retaining and recruiting adequate staff and early-education teachers willing to risk exposure to the virus despite tight prevention practices also remain expensive problems that directly affect business continuity.

Virginia isn’t alone with these challenges.  VCCA’s conclusions and concerns are echoed across the country by other early-education allies, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children, whose December survey found that 56% of open child care providers are losing money.

The just-passed federal COVID-19 Relief Act will provide $10 billion for child care centers to help them open or stay afloat, and we thank Virginia’s congressional representatives for their support of this provision.  We also applaud that the next round of the Paycheck Protection Program again is available to child care business owners.

However, we do not yet know how, when and how much of that funding will be disbursed to state leaders and ultimately to child care providers.  What we do know is that any assistance must be robust rather than incremental and as immediate as possible to ensure that Virginia’s infrastructure – grounded by the diverse system of accessible child care – can return to the successful growth seen prepandemic.

2021 already was set to be a year of transition for early education and child care in Virginia with the transfer of oversight from the state Department of Social Services to the state Department of Education on July 1.  This is an excellent move long advocated for by VCCA.

But while providers and state officials continue to collaborate on transition details of licensed care, it is difficult to move forward when so many providers must solely focus on day-to-day survival and when, ironically, thousands of families are torn between returning to work and safely caring for their children.

For the state’s economy to rebound, and for Virginia’s children to thrive and learn safely, child care providers must receive the immediate support – financial, political and operational – needed for short- and long-term sustainability.  Our families and future depend on it.

Myra Alves Garcia Sawyers, Ed.D., is president of the Virginia Child Care Association.

Kimberly Womack Hulcher is executive director of the Virginia Child Care Association

Invest in our Children!