Four in 10 working adults have children under 18. Before the coronavirus struck, approximately one-third of all children under 5 attended a paid care facility, day-care center, preschool or prekindergarten. Once the coronavirus hit, many of these arrangements were upended. While some day-care centers continue to serve essential workers, many have shut down completely. For example, Bright Horizons, one of the country’s largest day-care providers, closed more than half of its centers in mid-March. KinderCare, which had operated more than 1,300 centers across the country, now lists only about 400 that are still open.
Reopening these facilities won’t be easy. While many out-of-work day-care providers would jump at the chance to regain employment, not all will be in a position to return. Forty-three states have already closed public schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year — which means day-care providers who work while their children are in school may not be able to come back.
Still others may not want to come back. In some cases, it could be because laid-off day-care workers prefer to collect unemployment and other benefits than to risk their health and return to employers who, in their eyes, let them down in the midst of a crisis. Day-care workers, who earn on average less than $11 per hour, are likely to be among those who receive more by collecting unemployment benefits under the recently passed Cares Act than by working. In other cases, child-care workers may now be employed elsewhere. Amazon has 100,000 job openings, with a minimum starting pay of $17 per hour. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Many child-care workers have pursued their field because they find it fulfilling, but in this moment, they may prefer the security and compensation offered at a place such as Amazon.
And as the already limited supply of child-care spaces contracts, demand is about to skyrocket. The same school closures posing problems for day-care providers will create an increased need for care among the rest of America’s working parents. In two-thirds of families with school-age children, both parents work. Even parents of high schoolers are likely to be uncomfortable leaving their teenagers home alone while they return to work full time. For those with younger kids, it’s not even an option.
As policymakers move to reopen the economy, they will need to address this gap. States and localities, which regulate providers, should ease requirements to allow existing centers to expand and make it easier for new providers to offer services. Governors in Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, Hawaii and Nebraska included measures to relax child-care regulations as a part of their emergency covid-19 response orders. Others should follow suit.
Parents initially may be concerned about removing regulations they assume are meant to protect quality of care. But loosening these regulations does not need to erode quality. In fact, George Mason University’s Mercatus Center studied the impact of a variety of child-care regulations and found that child-staff ratios and group size limits weren’t associated with higher quality care, though they did significantly increase costs for parents. Common-sense reforms to these regulations — and to others, such as the impending D.C. rule requiring child-care workers to have college degrees — have been needed for a long time. Now they are critically urgent.
Another way to increase supply is for states and localities to make room for more home-based care. While this option is popular with parents, the regulatory requirements can be onerous. Common rules include requirements that all chipped paint and tripping hazards be eliminated and that extreme sanitation thresholds be maintained. These are standards that most normal households with children couldn’t meet. If states and localities increased the number of children that a home-based day care can serve without needing a license requiring this burdensome level of oversight, friends, neighbors and communities could more easily find solutions for their needs.
Finally, policymakers should pass laws granting immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Liability insurance for accidents already presents a barrier to entry for would-be day-care providers. Concerns about legal exposure if a child contracts the coronavirus will only depress supply further.
Whatever the plan, America needs to safely and swiftly reopen. That can begin only if we ensure that children will be properly cared for while their parents go back to work.