On the Bipartisan Policy Center’s May 2020 virtual forum “What Worked, What Didn’t, What’s Next?”, state child care policymakers discussed their states’ responses to COVID-19 within the child care system. Although the 10 participating states had enormous variation in terms of COVID-19’s impact, geographic density, and population size, a striking theme emerged in the conversation. Both during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and as economies are reopening, parents are showing a strong preference for family child care programs for their children. States shared that this trend includes essential service workers who have continued to work during COVID-19 and employees returning to work in a reopening economy. Family child care, inclusive of licensed family child care programs and group child care home programs, offers characteristics that parents trust during COVID-19, such as small group sizes, recognizable residential settings, and neighborhood locations close to where parents live.
In New York, the epicenter of COVID-19 now taking tentative steps toward reopening, parents are leaning on smaller, more familiar child care program types to reopen their economy. “In New York, we have approximately 37% of our total [child care] providers closed,” said Janice Molnar, deputy commissioner of the Division of Child Care Services in the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. “Where families seem to be gravitating are the family-based programs—family child care and group child care programs. Yes, there are some closures, but not as steep as center-based programs. We believe it is related to parents’ notions of safety, wanting to guard against infections, and staying near home. Especially in areas like New York City, where public transportation has become highly problematic, travelling to child care is much more difficult than previously.”
In Massachusetts, all child care programs were closed in March and the state opened an emergency child care system that included both center-based child care and family child care programs. “The interesting part about the 550 programs that are running under our emergency child care is that it represents about 7-8% of our system that is up and running and we have yet to reach 50% of our fill rate,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Early Education and Care, offering that parents appeared reluctant to place their children in congregant care settings. Although, she said, “that is not true across the entire state. We have pockets of high demand in family child care with smaller group sizes.”
Utah’s state administrator echoed similar findings in communities during COVID-19. “At the outset of [COVID-19], 40% of our licensed centers had temporarily closed and a quarter of our licensed family programs had closed. We are now at closure rates at about 21% of our centers and 8% of our family providers,” said Tracy Gruber, director of the Office of Child Care at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “Like other states, we are seeing a larger level of comfort of families being in smaller types of care settings. We are also happy to see a lot of programs are reopening now.”
The shift in parent choice to home-based family child care programs means states are identifying policies to better support family child care programs resiliency for the long term. “We are looking at a lot of strategies to support child care because it is so obvious that it is the go-to choice of modality for so many families,” said New York’s Molnar.
Several states said the federal Paycheck Protection Program could be used to support family child care, but challenges meant providers were limited to access the program or needed significant support to secure a PPP loan. In New York, 7% of home-based providers successfully accessed PPP. “We know many more could have,” added Molnar, if modifications were made to the program.
In Illinois, private funding was needed to support family child care to access PPP and other federal resources. “We did use philanthropy to do aggressive outreach and technical assistance to child care providers to apply to the Paycheck Protection Program and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance if they were home child care providers,” said Theresa Hawley, Illinois’ first assistant deputy governor for education.
Within states, programmatic investments are being viewed as key to family child care, as family child care networks and shared service models are being leveraged to support individual programs. In California, direct contracts with child care programs support Family Child Care Home Education Networks. “We need to let them focus on the children and families and what they do well, and support more shared services, especially if we need to go to more home-based care that is closer to communities,” said Sarah Neville-Morgan, deputy superintendent for the Teaching and Learning Support Branch at the California Department of Education.
Growing family child care program’s business skills and knowledge was an identified as a goal for nearly every state. Through a statewide survey, Utah’s experts found that “in family child care they need better business skills and access to financial coaching. That is going to be part of the recovery,” said Gruber.
Massachusetts parents are highly dependent on family child care, as 75% of all licensed child care programs are family child care. As in much of the country, family child care is on the decline: in the last four years, the state has lost 30% of their family child care programs. Leveraging existing family child care networks to preserve and grow family child care moving forward is priority. “The entire business practice of child care is based on full enrollment. That is one thing we have all talked about that we know is going to be a struggle in the next year,” said Massachusetts’ Aigner-Treworgy. “Our family child care providers are at the most vulnerable end of all of this.”
In Kentucky, state policymakers have partnered with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to set up a family child care home network that small businesses can refer to employees. Family child care is also the goal for many communities losing center-based programs, said Sarah Vanover, director of the Division of Child Care in the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“As child care centers are closing, we are reaching out to the staff and are trying to recruit those teachers with background checks and training to preserve capacity and create those smaller environments we know parents are looking for.”