KYW: Advocates say COVID-19 relief money can ensure racial equity for child care

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The pandemic forced hundreds of Pennsylvania child care centers to close their doors, but President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan could bring them back.

“I don’t want to see any of that money left on the table. Let’s take advantage of it,” Congressman Dwight Evans said Tuesday. “We have a need here in Philadelphia.”

Evans visited Philadelphia’s Chinatown to spread the word about the $40 billion child care aid carve-out in the plan.

“We just moved in here — and three months later, the shut down,” says Carol Wong, director of the Chinatown Learning Center, which provides high-quality child care for young learners.

Wong, like many others providers, lost money and students due to closures, and she struggled.

“Wondering every week and every month whether I would be able to pay rent and pay my teachers,” she said, “but I was lucky. With PPP, I was able to pay my teachers and retain them and pay their health insurance.”

Wong made ends meet by offering virtual learning to students. But she’s only able to service a fraction of the students because of pandemic restrictions. Other childcare providers were not as fortunate.

“When the pandemic struck, child care providers were hit hard,” says Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “They make their money by people putting their kids in care. And with no one there, they aren’t able to pay their bills.”

Hundreds of child care centers closed permanently, unable to make ends meet. For those able to stay open, as they provided care for children of essential workers, their student enrollment was so low that staying open was a struggle.

“Over time, many parents — even as they ready to return to work — they are scared of the virus,” says Cooper. “So many child care providers are on the brink.”

As people return to work, there will be a shortage of child care providers, and many parents — still strapped from months of unemployment — will have a hard time paying for child care. The American Rescue Plan injects $15 billion into programs to help parents pay for child care and another $24 billion to go directly to child care providers.

“To help them deal with the costs of PPE, hire more teachers and get bigger spaces,” says Cooper. “So that they can rapidly scale up and absorb demand.”

An estimated $1.2 billion is coming to Pennsylvania. All eyes will be on lawmakers to ensure the money follows the kids. Cooper says the money presents a big opportunity to bake equity into the distribution and to right past wrongs that have left Black and brown children in urban areas in situations with the poorest outcomes.

“We need to use this money not just to meet the needs of parents as they go back to work,” says Cooper. “We need to ensure that every kid has an equal shot at a great childhood.”

Cooper says the focus needs to be on quality of childcare and access.

“This is a groundbreaking opportunity if done right,” she says.