The Mercury News Weekend

Relief bill to benefit child-care centers

New federal stimulus package earmarks about $1 billion to state for providers

- By Jeong Park

A new round of federal coronaviru­s relief payments could help California’s essential workers pay for child care and could keep the lights on at child care centers struggling to stay open, according to advocates for the centers.

The COVID-19 stimulus package President Donald Trump signed this week provides about $10 billion for child care providers, including Head Start. California expects to receive about $1 billion of that money, Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a news conference last week.

“I hope this investment will help some of the programs on the edge,” said Christine Johnson-Staub, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D. C.- based Center for Law and Social Policy.

For many providers trying to manage periodic closures, new distance learning responsibi­lities and reduced enrollment, it’s already too late. Nearly 6,000 child care centers shut down during the pandemic, according to an estimate from the Child Care Providers United, a new union representi­ng about 40,000 family-based child care providers in California.

California hasn’t specified how the $1 billion will be spent. It’s nearly triple the $350 million the state’s child care system received in the spring through the Coronaviru­s Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

If the new money is spent similarly to the first round of aid, it could cover things such as child care centers’ rent and utilities, vouchers for essential workers and free child care for low-income families that already receive help.

The state’s economy depends on reliable child care, Newsom said at a recent news conference.

“We can’t get people back to work unless we have child care,” he said. “This

$1 billion we anticipate of the $10 billion nationally will be very, very timely and helpful.”

In April, the state allocated $50 million from its CARES Act allotment to pay for limited-term vouchers for child care for up to 20,000 essential workers. Some of the money could be spent that way again, advocates said.

The money can help providers pay for pandemicsp­ecific expenses such as hand sanitizer, Wi-Fi equipment and computers to support distance learning, said Johnson- Staub, with the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The state can use aid money to pay child care providers even when children are absent due to the coronaviru­s, and it can waive tuition co-pays, called family fees, for families that qualify for statesubsi­dized child care, said Kim Kruckel, executive director of the San Franciscob­ased Child Care Law Center.

The money also can go toward child care centers’ rent, utilities and wages. Kruckel said the bill is written so even those providers who are not in the statesubsi­dized programs can get help.

Still, advocates say the money will not be enough to fully restore the child care system, given that the providers have spent billions on new safety protocols.

“Certainly, $1 billion is going to help stop the bleeding,” said Camille Maben, the executive director of First 5 California. “Unfortunat­ely, child care providers are going to need more.”

“So while this agreement marks a small step forward after months of inaction, it does not come close to meeting the enormity of the crisis we face in this moment,” leaders at the Child Care Providers United said in a statement released shortly after Congress passed the bill. “State leaders must act to ge t t his money d isbursed immed iat ely and dedicate additional state resources to make sure we still have child care providers to support our frontline workers and support our economic recovery.”

The union, which is negotiatin­g its first contract with the state, is demanding the state pay the providers that have to shut down for weeks after coronaviru­s exposures.

The state also should increase how much it reimburses providers, said Max Arias, the union’s chairman.

In the state- subsidized child care system, parents making up to 85% of California’s median wage qualify for vouchers to help with costs. The state reimburses child care providers directly, at pre- set rates, when parents use the vouchers. Those rates aren’t high enough, Arias said.

“Before the crisis started, providers were already struggling. That’s why they formed the union,” Arias said. “We’re making those proposals based on the reality on the ground.”

Renaldo Sanders, 67, who runs a child care home in Compton, said she is taking care of fewer children during the pandemic — eight versus 10 or 12 — while paying for additional supplies from computers to tables. She said she has relied on her savings and a couple of state grants to reach this point in the pandemic.

“Thank God I received the grant because I was almost at the bottom,” she said.

She mourns what she can no longer do: Hug her students, take them to visit Santa Claus, share a family- style meal. She doesn’t know how much the next grant from the state will help.

“This money that’s coming — I just hope it comes soon and it comes on time and is equitable for everyone,” she said.

Still, she’s hopeful she can weather the storm. After all, she has done so for 36 years.

“This is what you do. If you love what you do, you figure out a way. Those are my future presidents, doctors, lawyers and teachers,” Sanders said of the children she cares for. “They are my future leaders.”

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