For the child-care sector, the situation caused by COVID-19 is grim.
Without quality, reliable child care, families can’t return to work and our economy can’t fully recover.
Yet small child-care businesses are buckling under the prolonged impacts of this pandemic, suffering from closures, reduced capacity, shifting family preferences, and increased costs for cleaning and protective equipment. This leaves the entire sector – and our ability to restart the economy – on the brink of disaster.
There has been some incremental progress made toward supporting Colorado’s child-care sector – but it’s far from enough.
Back in the summer, Colorado received our share – $42 million – of the $3.5 billion pot of federal COVID relief money designated for early-childhood efforts nationwide. Despite the thoughtful prioritization and allocation of these funds by state officials, the amount fell significantly short in addressing the deep crisis facing child-care providers and families in our state.
The Colorado General Assembly passed a $45 million child care stimulus bill during the special session held in early December, and voters in November approved Proposition EE, which will provide limited funding for preschool. But our best efforts to help stem the loss are certainly not a cure.
If more help doesn’t come soon to rescue child care providers, there may not be many left to save, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. A survey in July found that 40% of child-care businesses will permanently close without more public funding – it’s likely that many of these businesses are already shuttered.
Indeed, a survey conducted by Early Milestones Colorado found that about 10% of Colorado child care businesses have already closed and enrollment is down on average 37%.
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While it’s important that we see additional federal relief for the child care industry, it is just as important that resources are deployed quickly and in a manner that is efficient and meets the needs of child-care businesses in every corner of the state.
Luckily, we already have a powerful tool and network of nimble and fast-acting partners across Colorado who can do this – Early Childhood Councils.
Colorado’s network of 34 Early Childhood Councils is one of our best-kept secrets. Councils, which span the entire state, are local collaboratives of private and public stakeholders who build and maintain local systems around the needs of the youngest children, prenatal to age 5, and their families.
Members of Early Childhood Councils include representatives from county departments of public health and human services, health care and mental health agencies, school districts, local businesses, community-based organizations, parents and caregivers, and others. By leveraging relationships and input from local stakeholders to align and coordinate local efforts and investments, Early Childhood Councils maximize taxpayer dollars while meeting the needs of local families.
As a state, we have looked to Early Childhood Councils in the past to help address pressing priorities. These have included driving sweeping quality improvement efforts in early care and learning programs; building the pipeline of early childhood educators; integrating infant and early childhood mental health into child care and primary health care; and building systems for universal developmental screenings to help every child in Colorado thrive.
In each of these cases, Early Childhood Councils provided the “boots on the ground” in local communities to get the hard work done.
A timely new report produced with support from the Buell Foundation, a statewide leader in early childhood education and development, highlights the history, work and impact of Early Childhood Councils. The report sheds light on how Councils might be leveraged today to help us solve new challenges.
As the pandemic and related uncertainty continue into the New Year, child care providers across the state face excruciating choices between health, safety, and financial solvency. Since the onset of COVID-19, Early Childhood Councils have jumped into action, connecting local providers with emergency supplies, guiding providers to access available stimulus funds, and counseling providers to safely reopen and operate.
With schools focused on virtual learning, many of these councils have been helping school districts and leaders understand the needs of local families, the resources available, and how the community can come together in extraordinary circumstances to better support local families. With their long history in communities and extensive partnerships, the councils are a quick and accessible source of on-the-ground information and practical support.
If more stimulus funds become available, Colorado is fortunate to have a strong network of Early Childhood Councils that can ensure efficient distribution of the resources to shore up the child care sector across our state.
In the meantime, we must act decisively in support of the child care sector, which is an essential foundation for our economy and an important support for the next generation.
Nicole Riehl is the president and CEO of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC), a Denver-based coalition of business leaders who support early childhood through advocacy and workplace initiatives.
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