As the Madison County economy has grown, so have concerns over the demand for child care.
The focus was on worries that Huntsville and Madison were already only meeting about half the demand for child care, and there was a gap in services as well as licensed child care.
Gail Piggott, executive director of the Alabama Partnership for Children, held a summit last fall as a means for finding solutions not just for standard 8 to 5 care, but also for shift care, and weekend child care as well.
She formed a task force to look at the demands and issues associated with child care in North Alabama.
Six weeks ago, that task force was suddenly faced with a more daunting task. They have been working day and night trying to draft a set of recommendations and best practices they can share with the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the Legislature, and with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff to save the child care industry in North Alabama.
“The one big thing we’ve learned is there is no state entity that collects all of the public and private data around child care,: Piggott said. “We can get information from DHR about licensing and subsidies, but there is a whole other world of private child care out there, and there is no way to count how many are enrolled in those programs.”
She said it has shown a glaring light on the need for a central repository of data about child care. Once that is created, it will provide a real-time model that helps parents.
“If you send parents a list,” she said. “That is no different from looking through the phone book or looking at a list online.
“But when you know what fees are currently being charged, who has openings in an infant classrooms, et cetera, that is the real-time help that supports parents and families, and it’s a glaring need in our state right now.”
She said the best research is a national survey conducted in mid-April of 50 day care centers and 50 home providers.
The results are alarming. One-third of all childcare programs said they could not financially survive more than two weeks.
“It’s not an industry that operates on big margins or that has big reserves,” said Piggott. “In that same survey, one-third of them said they will probably never reopen.
“Now we don’t know how many of those are family child care, how many are day care centers, but that folks, is going to cause an alarming problem if we’re not able to, in an emergency like the COVID-19 crisis, to stabilize the industry and keep them afloat. These people have already been without income for two weeks, three weeks, maybe four weeks. The economy cannot rev back up if we don’t have childcare options for working families.”
She said the task force must encourage and specify will stabilize it.
The outlook presents a conundrum because, out in the field, Piggott said there is a lot of confusion.
“There are CDC guidelines involved as well as Alabama child care licensing guidelines and those have been modified,” she said. “Then there are Alabama Health Department guidelines and they often differ from county to county.”
There are also fears and concerns from teachers, day care center owners and directors surrounding the vast unknowns. Many of the fears and concerns are about not being able to serve their families, not being able to see the children, or connect with the children.
Madison County DHR reports there are 32 child care centers open and operating, and delving into those numbers, 11 are family child care – meaning they can only care for a maximum of six children.
It was estimated that two to three percent of family child care facilities across Alabama were operating to care for the children of health professionals and critical care workers who are working chaotic hours.
It brought to light the issue of child care during non-standard hours and the typical child development center does not always accommodate those times. Although there are centers that do in Madison County, it presented an opportunity to consider family child care as a good option because they are only serving families that need child care from 3 p.m. until midnight.
“Recapping what we know about child care in Alabama right now,” Piggott said, “For working parents on vouchers and who are part of the subsidy program, DHR, as of May 1, is serving 100 children from 65 families in Madison County. Across the state they are serving upwards of 30,000 children.”
But, there is good news in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The CARES Act includes $3.5 billion in additional funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant to provide child care assistance to emergency and frontline workers, and to help stabilize the child care market in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we are smart and do it right, there are funds in the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which in Alabama is $1.9 billion,” said Piggott. “FEMA and child care are specifically mentioned in that $1.9 billion and we will soon get some guidance from the governor on that.
“It specifically references funding for birth through age five and not just K through 12, and that’s $48 million.”
She said the Childcare Development Fund will provide an additional $46 million and that amount is matched with state dollars. It will be used to pay for the voucher program and subsidized care for low income working families, as well as for quality initiatives like training and licensing that help support quality child care.
“It is exactly what needed to happen,” Piggott said. “Our recommendations are very specific. For those on the subsidy program, DHR sends parents who qualify for subsidized child care a check every month, based on attendance and the number of children they serve. The rates vary across the state, but what we asked DHR to do immediately when the closures happened, was to base their payments on enrollment as of Feb. 1, pre-COVID. However many children they were serving on that date, whatever they were being compensated, continue to send it and forget about attendance. That money is available, it was already budgeted, and we knew we were going to spend it.
“Also, because parents pay a copay based on a sliding scale fee, but child care facilities can’t collect it because they are closed, we asked them to use the funding to suspend parent copay for now, and send that amount to the child care centers.”
Based on the dramatic decline anticipated, Piggott said if they don’t act now and the programs close, they will lose the investments in training. And she doesn’t think they will get them back when the economy revs back up.
“We are starting to share our recommendations with some of our key legislators now that the Legislature is back in session.” she said. “We want to ensure they understand the critical nature of this issue.
“We have gone through two or three iterations of our recommendations, so it is very succinct with us naming specific funding streams available to do it. We feel it is hard to say ‘no’ when you show them where the money can come from.”
She is not so sure about the money from the GEER Fund, however.
“Everybody has a critical need; everybody is in the same boat; and frankly, young children and families find it hard to claw their way to the top of the list,” she said.
Finally, Piggott points out that the situation affects more than just low income families. Private pay parents are in a dilemma too.
Should you keep paying for child care to hold a spot, even while they are closed? If you are working from home, should you keep paying for that? Are you holding a spot someone else needs worse than you? Should you continue child care at all?
“Child care issues are complex,” said Piggott, “By nature, it is impossible to social distance young children. We haven’t even figured out how to prevent them from sharing pacifiers; so when you talk to a teacher about socially distancing 3-year-olds, you get a true sense of what that looks like on the ground.”