Every one of us in Colorado wonders what life will be like after when the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Will we shake hands? Will we gather for worship? Will we squeeze onto the chair lift and huddle together for hot chocolate and fries in a crowded ski lodge? Will we fly to visit grandparents?
I can weather many changes, but what nearly breaks my heart is this question: “Will my daughter return to preschool?”
My first child was thrilled when we enrolled her in preschool last fall. Sure, the drop-offs were dramatic and it took a little getting used to, but soon enough she came home singing new songs and reporting that she loved her teachers. She learned to use a pencil, how to skip, and she even acquired basic math skills.
Her teachers are extraordinary and by the time COVID-19 closed schools in Colorado, she was crying when she had to leave school at the end of each day.
It’s hard to imagine life without school, and most Colorado children won’t have to. School will resume in some form, as will sports practices, choir rehearsals and advanced placement tests.
But for Colorado’s earliest learners, the future may not be so bright.
COVID-19 has hit early learning hard in our state. Many early learning and care providers ― including some preschool centers ― may not be able to open their doors when shelter-in-place is lifted.
In a recent survey carried out by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 33 percent of Colorado child care providers said they cannot survive a two-week closure without significant public investment. Twenty two percent said they cannot survive a closure of any length without public investment.
Even before this pandemic, Coloradans struggled to find early learning and care programs for their children. In fact, 51 percent of Coloradans already lived in a child care desert, meaning there are three or more children for every licensed child care slot. Now, with such widespread COVID-19 related closures, this statistic will only worsen.
Early learning and care providers in Colorado operate on thin profit margins. Since the onset of COVID-19, many early learning and care programs saw a drop in enrollment and therefore received less tuition. As income falls and health concerns rise, some are closing their doors.
Across the state, parents are asking similar questions to mine: “Will I be able to send my child back to preschool? To child care? What if all providers near me have permanently closed?”
Policymakers have an important role to play. Will they better invest in children, and the larger early learning and care industry, in the next stimulus package?
On March 27, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, which allocated $3.5 billion for child care. About $41 million of that sum will come to Colorado to help the early learning sector through the child care and development block grant program. This funding ― together with Colorado’s innovative private-public partnership developed to offer free child care to frontline workers ― is a good first step. But more is needed.
We need to see Congress step up even more, providing permanent solutions to the child care crisis. A $50 billion investment is needed to support the national child care industry, helping ensure Colorado kids can access quality early learning.
The early learning industry is vital to child development and a backbone of our economy, allowing parents to re-enter and remain in the workforce once this pandemic ends. Therefore, Congress must aid this industry as it aids others.
As Congress discusses a new stimulus package to provide more funding to states this spring, I urge Colorado U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, along with our full federal delegation, to rally behind increased support for early learning in future aid packages.
My daughter is ready to go back to preschool, and I’m ready for all Colorado kids have the early learning opportunities they deserve. Robust federal funding will help all Colorado kids have a fair shot early on, making our state poised to thrive in the future. Let’s come back strong, let’s come back better, and let’s start by ensuring our members of Congress invest in kids.
Annalise Romoser is the Colorado state manager for Save the Children Action Network.