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Opinion: New visions for childcare in a pandemic

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Across the United States, millions of families are facing the seemingly binary decision of whether or not to send their children back to school in the fall. With the CDC strongly supporting the reopening schools and reports of online education laying bare the gaps in accessible learning, many families face stressful dilemmas. In Madison, these decisions will be put off while public schools have virtual learning at least until October 30th. The discourse around school reopening has been largely technical. However, debates on school reopening have left children under the age of five and care outside of daytime hours out of the discourse.  

This lack of attention has worked out as a full-fledged child care crisis that has been brewing for some time. The average family in Dane County spent 14 percent of their income on child care in 2019. Now, lack of support for providers and capacity limitations exacerbates the crisis as the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association reported that only 75 percent of licensed care remains available compared to that in early March. Additionally, the absence of care outside of standard work hours before the pandemic contributes to the lack of infrastructure for our essential workers. 

It’s more than “day” care

Workers now deemed “essential” during the pandemic often work nonstandard hours that include evenings, overnight, and weekends. In the United States, 43 percent of children have at least one parent that works nonstandard hours which results in potentially 31 million children requiring nonstandard care. This can be anywhere from workers in health care to food systems to janitorial staff. Limited and inequitable access to care is further combined with Black women and women of color unevenly shouldering essential work responsibilities. 

In Madison, 90 percent of licensed providers close by 7 p.m. as reported by the Care For All project, a community-led research initiative that advocates for community child care. Thus, the current system has created a gaping disparity between child care supply and demand as well as neglected an entire population of children whose parents have been on the front-lines all along. These voices, however, are deafeningly absent from the discourse.

Navigating the child care landscape in a pandemic requires us to shift how we think about care and who we are leaving out from the current infrastructure.  Attention has centered on school reopenings; however, evening, overnight, and weekend care is also relevant to families with children under the age of 12. Keeping renewed priorities of health and distanced education at the forefront of a disease-sensitive response, there are two major elements to consider.

Decentralize child care

Over the past decade, center-based child care, often large commercial facilities, have increased while family child care, in-home providers, decreased by 15 percent from 2011 to 2015. The child care trend toward increasing profits by increasing enrollment rates is no longer going to cut it; these large capacities are no longer realistic nor safe for the next few years

A system equipped to prevent and intervene on diseases is imperative for responding to future public health crises. Therefore, an in-home child care system focused on quality and meeting diverse needs will work best for the community moving forward. Disease prevention and control will be more efficient for in-home care and can be more cost effective

Invest in the community

Care must be viewed as a collective community responsibility. Families must have their needs for safe and quality care responded to on a community level rather than a top-down policy standard imposed from the state level. Decisions by these networks must prioritize and be made by communities of color. This process includes white and socially privileged families understanding the impact of their decisions upon other families. 

Recently, there has been an increased consideration of community voice by power holders regarding safe school environments, which has resulted from years of work by Madison youth of color. Madisonians can look to the local Movement for Black Lives on how to effectively advocate for investment, success, and safety for our youngest community members. 

As a community, our fates are inherently intertwined with one another’s no matter ability, age, form of work, gender, income level, or race. Expanding the discussion of school reopenings to include teachers, students, families, and communities is progress. Now, we need to make this same transition to include children, care workers, and their families when understanding our community’s wellbeing. In this, nonstandard hours of care should not be an afterthought but must be publicly supported in a decentralized childcare system. 

Tanvi Tilloo is the lead policy analyst on the Care for All project. As a resident of Madison and a graduate of economics and mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she is passionate about local issues and is pursuing her policy career at the University of Chicago as a Masters of Public Policy candidate. 

Gretchen Trast is the co-principal investigator for the Care for All project. She received her undergraduate degree at UW-Madison and is pursuing a master’s degree in Community Development at Vanderbilt University, studying diverse economies and positive youth development.