COVID-19 brought Colorado to a near standstill in mid-March. Businesses shut down, schools closed and families were asked to stay home as much as possible. 

But life did not come to a standstill for our essential workers. Hospital, police and nursing home employees were on the frontlines, helping Colorado prepare for, and respond to, COVID-19.

With the closing of schools and, in turn, many child care facilities, essential workers faced a critical challenge: who would care for their children while they worked? Who would ensure their children were safe while they helped keep all Coloradans safe? 

A public-private partnership led by Gary Community Investments and the Colorado Department of Human Services stepped up to address this challenge.

It started with a convening phone call between a diverse group of partners on Sunday, March 15, including The Buell Foundation and Centura Health, who were committed to helping the efforts financially, ensuring no family would go without care; and technology company Nanno, whose services would help connect families and providers.

Michelle Barnes, Mike Johnston

By Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis formally announced the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative, and by the following Monday, 1,100 children were matched with licensed child care providers. By the conclusion of the collaborative on May 24, 5,086 children were cared for by 498 providers across the state. 

This public-private partnership proved that when we come together, we can solve the big challenges, we can support families and we can help sustain an entire sector of small businesses. 

Many people are talking about how much they want to “get back to normal” when the threat of COVID-19 is no longer so prominent in our daily lives. But for child care, “getting back to normal” isn’t good enough.

We can’t emerge from COVID-19 to have child care go back to the way it was. It was and is a broken, fragile system even in the best of times, and it needs the attention and investment it deserves to emerge not just rebuilt, but reinvented; ready to support all of Colorado families.

Child care businesses are small businesses, many of them women-owned, many of them minority-owned. They struggle in a system that has made their business survival challenging even in good times.

A pandemic didn’t cause razor-thin margins, high staff turnover and little support or attention from the broader business world; this is the everyday reality of child care businesses, despite how vital their work is. 

If we are to avoid returning to the status quo, we must change how we think about and invest in child care. We must use smart data to match families who need care with providers who can deliver that care. We must identify and address child care deserts to meet the needs of families in areas that need it most.

We must rethink the business models and existing regulatory barriers and invest in the business support that child care providers need to thrive and grow. And we must recognize child care providers as the professionals they are, providing liveable and appropriate wages. 

We are encouraged that there may be a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis for the child care sector. The pandemic brought the need for child care front and center.

We cannot turn away from how important child care is to the foundation of and economic success of our state. COVID-19 brought together a diverse group of people across Colorado’s public and private sectors to be innovative and ensure that both the families of essential workers, and our child care providers, received needed support. This work will continue as we are better together.

We call on our partners, communities, governments, philanthropic organizations and businesses to join us in coming together to support and build a new and better child care system. Our children and families depend on it; child care providers depend on it; we all depend on it. 

Michelle Barnes is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. Mike Johnston is the President & CEO of Gary Community Investments, which includes the Gary Community Investment Company and The Piton Foundation, invests in for-profit and philanthropic solutions for Colorado’s low-income children and their families.

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @MikeJohnstonCO