Child care was always essential - By Christine Padilla

Contribution from Christine Padilla, Director of Build Up for San Mateo County’s Children, a cross-sector initiative designed to grow and improve the supply of child care and preschool facilities in San Mateo County.

San Mateo County, along with five neighboring counties, were the first in the nation to implement shelter-in-place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we couldn’t be prouder of our local leadership. As we led then, I hope we will continue to lead to ensure all our communities recover together.

During this difficult time, the child care industry has risen to navigate this public health crisis. We are certain that one thing rings true, child care is, and always has been, essential. It is particularly essential to front-line workers at this moment, who could not answer our community’s call without a safe place to leave their children. It will play a critical role as a foundation for future recovery to ensure many of us can head back to work after the shelter-in-place is relaxed.

Child care is critical community infrastructure that is connected to every aspect of our economy and overall community wellbeing. Yet - across San Mateo County - there is a growing shortage of child care and preschool spaces. Close to 11,000 spaces are needed for children ages birth to four years old, with a projected need of 14,000 by 2025. The child care sector has long been overstrained and unvalued with predominantly women-owned small businesses and nonprofits working to meet the needs of the community. Child care is costly to operate and families often struggle to pay for it, while providers carve out at best a “living wage”. To make it through recent closures and economic hardships, child care providers are in dire need of substantial support. Without additional resources, families may find their provider unable to reopen when they return to work. Now more than ever, we must strive to preserve all existing spaces, or this already fragile sector may not be there to help us recover.

While we know disparities have always existed in our county, this pandemic has heightened the awareness of the vulnerabilities in our community.

The initial investments made through the CARES Act and other emergency funding alongside unemployment insurance provisions and loans for small businesses are certainly first steps in helping child care providers and families survive the growing public health and economic crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19. But it isn’t enough. As the scope and magnitude of the situation evolves, it is clear that additional focused support will be needed to reflect the essential status of child care providers in our communities.

Child care needs dedicated relief funding provided with flexibility for even the smallest center owners and family child care home-based providers who may not have accountants or financial advisors to assist with accessing benefits in the relief package.

Early education advocates are asking Congress to include $50 billion in emergency funding to address the specific needs of early care and education providers, families and children in a fourth relief bill. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a long-time underinvestment in child care infrastructure.Our community and economy need child care providers to function, and now is the time to rise up and support this unique sector.

While legislators consider additional stimulus packages, locally, we have a rare opportunity to not only repair, but reimagine a sustainable child care system for San Mateo County. Philanthropy can play a critical bridging role to ensure that many of these providers stay afloat during this difficult time, to work towards a timelier solution to not only preserve, but build up, our invaluable child care system.

Now is the time to do what our county does best: collaborate, coordinate and support each other.