Guest Blogger: Jeff Dyer – AECA Executive Director

Manika scours the shelves at Dollar General and Harps, but she can’t find any toilet paper. Resigned and exhausted, she travels to nearby cities to round up enough supplies for her child-care program in Vilonia to survive another week.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the families she serves stepped up to help by providing thermometers. But she still must spend her weekends traveling from store to store for essentials, often sitting in Walmart parking lots for hours waiting for new shipments.

Whether at centers or family homes, licensed Arkansas child-care providers like Manika perform a constant balancing act. They must juggle operational, staffing and financial challenges on a daily basis–all while ensuring the children they serve are safe, cared for and properly fed. It requires diligence, sacrifices and untold hours of hard work. And yet, profitability is never guaranteed. Most child-care providers in Arkansas operate on razor-thin margins.

Since covid-19 arrived, it’s become even more challenging for these programs to stay afloat. Hundreds of state- and federally funded providers have been forced to temporarily suspend operations as part of the joint Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and Arkansas Department of Education’s directive to close school districts. Many others voluntarily shut their doors–not because they wanted to, but because there were no viable options to keep their employees and the families they served safe.

Those that have remained open are facing steeply declining attendance and enrollments, and a persistent lack of access to cleaning supplies, medical equipment and food items like milk.

According to a 2019 report from the Committee for Economic Development, child care has a $702 million economic impact in Arkansas. It supports more than 17,800 jobs for a total payroll of nearly $300 million. Unfortunately, a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children showed many of Arkansas’ child-care centers and homes will not be able to survive covid-19-related closures or declines in enrollment.

As a state, we should applaud Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his administration for their continued efforts to keep residents safe while minimizing business disruptions. We should also show appreciation to the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) for its decision to increase allocations for child-care providers receiving Child Care and Development Block Grant funds.

However, our state must do more to support this industry all other sectors rely upon. Otherwise, many licensed child-care centers and homes won’t survive–leaving countless families without a paycheck or adequate care options.

That’s why the Arkansas Early Childhood Association has joined forces with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; Arkansas Association for Infant Mental Health; Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading; Arkansas Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics; Arkansas Early Childhood Association; Communities Unlimited; ForwARd Arkansas; and Hope Credit Union to call for help.

Together, we are urging the state to coordinate access to limited ADH- and DHS-required supplies and ease the process for programs to purchase essential food items. We are asking the public and private sectors to support existing programs instead of pop-ups to provide care for essential personnel.

More can be done with the resources allocated to state agencies by the CARES Act. We are encouraging the state to provide the necessary financial support for licensed providers that need help meeting current ADH and DHS guidelines on group size and daily arrival and check-in processes as well as reductions in enrollment.

Finally, we are asking the state to implement a grant or loan program, to be managed by Community Development Financial Institutions, with $10,000 available per licensed provider to reopen or meet shortfalls from drops in attendance.

Every industry will have to navigate unprecedented challenges during the reopening of our state. But if we don’t equip Arkansas child-care providers with the support they need now, they won’t make it to the recovery phase. We can’t afford to let that happen.

This article originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette

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