Child-care providers, whose shoestring survival has been tested by the pandemic conditions of the past year, are not only getting a belated lifeline from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan but also a sudden show of appreciation for their essential role to the economy.
The beleaguered Massachusetts child-care system is expected to reap more than $500 million, according to the office of Representative Katherine Clark, the assistant speaker of the US House, including money that can be used to stabilize budgets, hire additional staff, or boost pay for overworked employees.
William J. Eddy, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, called the investment a “game-changer,” and said it “will just give a jolt to our system.”
Massachusetts’ private day-care providers have received almost no government help to survive the pandemic, save any paycheck protection act loans they were able to obtain. Until now, state government directed the limited federal aid available to providers who care for children with government-subsidized care. (The state only recently began offering all providers personal protective equipment and COVID testing.)
In the meantime, many providers have buckled under the burdens of COVID-era care and constraints. According to the Department of Early Education and Care, 922 family child-care providers and 450 child-care centers have not reopened.
The enormous federal investment reflects the concerns of activists and businesses alike that without support, the child-care network that survives the pandemic will be insufficient to support a resurgent workforce.
“The big takeaway for providers is, help is coming,” said Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, an advocacy and policy organization.
Though the aid will take months to arrive, optimism for the industry’s future got another boost last week when the state’s early educators became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, she said.
“I think with the glimmer of hope, people can keep it together,” O’Leary said. “With the idea that the funding will be available, they can start making a plan.”
For the past year, child-care providers faced a changed landscape that made it dramatically harder to make ends meet. Revenue shrank when the state changed the regulations on how much space must be available for every child, limiting classroom numbers. At the same time, providers had to invest more time and money deep-cleaning their facilities, and more staff time in keeping children safe from exposure.
In a more modest sense, help was already on its way before Biden signed the latest COVID relief bill. A smaller federal stimulus package, passed in December, should deliver $130 million to Massachusetts well before the latest package lands.
Between that package and the American Rescue Plan, the national investment in child care approximates the eye-popping $50 billion that advocates like Clark and US Senator Elizabeth Warren, both of Massachusetts, had pushed for, but that seemed overly optimistic for an industry long overlooked.
In the end, even the House Republicans who voted unanimously against the stimulus package did not raise loud objections to child-care funding, which found support from business allies seeking to stabilize the post-pandemic economy.
“Going into the pandemic, child care did not have the support or the investment that it needed, but the pandemic, like with so many other inequities, revealed how fragile this system was,” said Clark. “This pandemic has brought us face-to-face with the ramifications of an economy that has long marginalized and devalued women’s work and families.”
In addition, the state is releasing another $30 million to child-care providers to upgrade their facilities and provide bonuses and better salaries to early educators, many of whom worked throughout the pandemic.
One in five early educators falls below the national poverty line. In Massachusetts, child-care workers average $30,090 — 34 percent less than public school preschool teachers, according to the state Department of Early Education and Care.
New regulations imposed by the coronavirus have only ratcheted up the pressure those workers face. To limit potential exposure, for instance, teachers have been confined to certain classrooms and parents have been kept outside the buildings. That requires more aides to assist in classrooms and to serve as “runners” delivering children to the door for pickup, while still satisfying state regulations on child-to-teacher ratios at any given time.
At Teachable Moments, a large group child-care center in Peabody, that extra aide is often the owner, Darlene Shapiro.
“I may be that extra person in the classroom that’s taking the children potty,” she said, or “the extra set of hands that they need to be able to take the kids out of the classroom and meet the numbers.”
The stimulus money will enable providers like Shapiro to hire aides to accommodate those extra shifts or tasks. It will also cushion the many losses of the last year. She loses money whenever a classroom has to close for quarantines and she lets parents waive fees as “vacation time,” for instance.
“You feel bad because they can’t go to work,” said Shapiro, who absorbs the costs, saying, “We’ll be eating pasta again this week.”
Her client base is already down, since parents adjusted their schedules. Teachable Moments is licensed for 60 children but now serves only about 40, she said. Many parents scaled back their child-care usage because they needed to be home several days a week to oversee remote learning for their school-age children who weren’t in school.
“Everyone’s needs have changed because of this,” Shapiro said.
Her “saving grace,” she said, were the low-income children whose care was paid by the state. To ensure the neediest children had a safety net, the state devoted the first stimulus package to providers who serve them, and picked up parents’ share of the costs, spending $58.5 million. That provided a stabilizing force for providers like Shapiro, who estimates about 30 percent of the children she serves receive subsidized care.
“If I didn’t get the state money, I’d be closed,” she said.
But it left out private-pay providers who are solely reliant on parent fees to make up lost costs. That’s about to change: The December stimulus funding will help child-care centers whether or not they receive subsidies. And more help is on the way in the new package.
“Their voices were heard, which is going to impact the distribution of funds,” said O’Leary.