In his safer at home executive order last month, Governor Evers declared childcare providers essential workers, allowing daycare centers to operate during the pandemic.
But, some centers have chosen to close their doors, while others have remained open.
“Whether to stay open and serve families of essential workforce, or to close down.”
That’s Emilie Amundson, Secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families. The department is waiting for $51 million dollars in federal relief for Wisconsin childcare centers to be approved by the state’s budget committee.
The money to bolster childcare operations was allocated through the federal CARES Act. But all COVID-19-related financial appropriations must be passed through and approved by the Joint Finance Committee.
If approved, the federal funding will be split into three grant programs, Amundson says. The programs will help build childcare infrastructure for parents returning to work. The hope is that by keeping the centers afloat, the state will be able to meet demand for childcare providers when non-essential residents begin to return to work.
“We’re gonna need many more centers to come back into the field, reopen, if and when our workforce starts to come back,” she says. “We’re looking closely at Badger Bounce Back, and how we need to strengthen the childcare industry for folks to get back into the office. Really trying to buoy the industry to help as many as centers reopen as quickly as possible so we do have that critical backbone as people come back to work.”
One grant program would allocate relief to childcare centers that have stayed open during the pandemic. It would provide them with money for mortgages, utilities and sanitation. It will also provide parent reimbursement for the cost of care.
Another grant program will provide hazard pay directly to childcare employees.
Amundson says childcare employees are some of the most low-paid, high-skilled employees, and they’re at significant risk. The average hourly wage for a daycare worker is $11.65, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The third grant will provide financial support to help as many childcare centers that have been closed to re-open as soon as possible.
Margaret Stueck is the Director at Creek Dayschool in Madison. Creek has been closed since March 19th, and won’t reopen until May 26th, when Evers’ safer at home extension is scheduled to end.
Despite the closure, the daycare center hasn’t had to furlough or lay off any employees. Creek has moved most of their operations online.
“So all the teachers are doing their regular work but they’re doing it remotely,” she says. “They’re trying to still provide lesson plans to parents, keep in contact with them, see if there’s things they need. They’re getting pretty good at their Zoom show and tells. So just trying to keep in contact with the children on a regular basis.”
Mary Victoria-Platt is the Assistant Director of Family Services at The Learning Garden, another Madison childcare facility. The Learning Garden is still operating and taking in students, but they’re taking steps to prevent community spread of COVID-19.
“We have a commercial sanitizer at school. Parents aren’t allowed in the building. It’s a lot of temperature taking with staff and children, a lot of symptom checking,” she says. “Social distancing with young children is difficult. I would say it’s near impossible, but we’re trying our best to make sure everything stays as sterile as possible.”
The Department of Children and Families recently launched a childcare finder system that connects essential workers to childcare facilities with open slots.
While the childcare funds are federal money, they still need to be approved by the Joint Finance Committee, which is poised to make a decision in the next two weeks.
Amundson says she thinks the funds will be approved, and wants to open the grants the second the money is available.
“I’ve been really buoyed by the conversations that I’m having on both sides of the aisle, recognizing how critical childcare is to economic recovery. When the Trump administration provides $51 million dollars for what is one of the lowest-paid, highest-skilled professions, if we leave a dollar on the table, we’re doing a disservice, and I believe the committee members believe that as well.”