Jonathan Horowitch is president and chief executive of Easterseals DC MD VA.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed countless faults and cracks within American society. As the debate on reopening schools continues, one of these cracks is how to educate children, particularly those most in need, and how to ensure that at-risk children reach kindergarten ready to succeed.

It’s important to understand what works and what doesn’t, because high-quality early childhood education demonstrably improves lifetime outcomes for at-risk children. Decades of study have shown that society earns $6.30 of benefits for every $1 invested in early education. It helps drive increased educational attachment (including high school and college graduation), improves employment and wages as adults, leads to better health and reduces incarceration. The benefits aren’t just for students, either.

Investing in early childhood education increases maternal education, labor force participation and parental income. Children’s earliest experiences play a critical role in brain development, so for children from low-income families or with developmental delays or disabilities, intervention is likely to be more effective and less costly when provided earlier in life.

Yet even before the pandemic, high-quality children’s services were out of reach for many, especially in our region. Nationally, the average cost of early child care in 2017 was $9,589 per year. Nowhere is it more expensive than in the nation’s capital, where infant care averages more than $24,000 per year. Easterseals DC MD VA estimates that costs increase 15 percent to 20 percent for child development that fully includes children with disabilities. But not all students who need this care end up receiving it. Black children who need early intervention at age 2 are five times less likely to receive services than White children.

The pandemic is exacerbating these problems. Nearly half of child-care centers in Maryland and Virginia are expected to close permanently. According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey, 86 percent of child-care centers are serving significantly fewer children than before the pandemic. But parents need more help than ever. Among working parents currently facing unemployment, 80 percent have children at home, and 65 percent reported they will need to find new child-care arrangements as they return to work.

This crunch creates concerns for all parents, but it puts unique pressure on our most at-risk families. A recent article in The Lily highlighted the disparate impact of the pandemic on those with means and those without in D.C. The article follows two child-care centers: one a thriving private center where wealthier parents pay more to ensure high-quality care, and the other, which serves lower-income families and relies on child-care vouchers from the Department of Human Services, has shut permanently.

Though policymakers and communities are understandably focused on the immediacy of the pandemic, we can’t ignore the work needed to enable parents to return to jobs and children to receive the services critical to a lifetime of success. We must expand partnerships among businesses, the government and nonprofits, which have interlocking interests and abilities to address this slow-building crisis. Businesses need a highly educated workforce and employees who have options for high-quality child care. Governments rely on thriving businesses for their tax bases, and simply cannot afford the cost of remedial care and education. Nonprofits such as Easterseals have a pivotal role to play in growing the system’s capacity and can share best practices that governments, businesses and other nonprofits can adopt in pursuit of shared goals.

The latest investment in child care as part of the coronavirus relief package is far less than what’s needed. And no federal effort will be enough to completely solve the local challenges and provide critical services to those in need considering the limitations of the pandemic.

We’ll need to get creative. From blended learning environments to online screening for developmental delays conducted through parent surveys, technology has the potential to better reach and serve at-risk students. Training providers to serve children with disabilities and delays can increase overall capacity for those most in need. Enhancing the quality of lower-cost alternatives such as home-based child care, reconfiguring unused office space for child development and finding ways to incentivize businesses to support child development for their employees could all help parents find their footing once the pandemic recedes.

In a moment of shared suffering, it can be easy to forget that not everyone is suffering the same. As society tries to better recognize and respond to the inequality inherent in the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s critical that those with disabilities and low-income families are fully included in the conversation.

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