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Editor's Column: Two years into the pandemic, parents and child care providers are still feeling the strain

My 4-year-old daughter came down with strep throat late last week and had to stay home from preschool, and honestly if I would have had a spare second to cry about it, I would have. I was worried about her being sick, of course, but beyond that, I was stressed about how our family would survive another day of chaos – the latest in a long line of chaotic days.

Our 6-year-old was home from school, too, because of bad weather (no thanks to this brutal winter we’re having), and both my husband and I were geared up for very busy days at work. For the zillionth time we found ourselves asking, “What do we do now?”

Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson, Detroit Lakes Tribune

We have no family close by that can come help us out, no babysitter on standby who will run over at the last minute – especially not to care for a child who’s sick and could pass something on to them. It’s just me and my husband here, trying to hold down our full-time day jobs while also riding the extreme roller coaster that parenting is these days: on-a-dime disruptions and logistical and emotional upheavals, and a constant absence of comforting things we once had that we’re desperately missing now – simple but important things like a reliable routine.

We managed to muddle through that strep throat episode last week. We were never able to pay full attention to any one thing at a time, but we muddled, and we survived. Just like we’ve been doing for the past two years.

It’s officially been that long now – two years – since the lakes area was hit with COVID-19, and while many folks around here have put the era of masking and quarantines behind them (at least mostly), those of us who have young children in our lives are still waiting for our turn.

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Kids under 5 are the last group to be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19. There was talk earlier this winter of the vaccine becoming available to them by the end of February, but now the decision has been delayed and it’s looking like mid-April at the earliest.

In the meantime, us caretakers of tiny humans are having some of our hardest days of the pandemic, feeling utterly spent and yet largely unseen by the general public. Empathy was everywhere at the start of all this; these days, it’s harder to find.

I’m complaining a lot here, but actually we’re very fortunate, my husband and I – we haven’t faced job loss or financial hardship because of the pandemic, and our family has stayed relatively healthy. We haven’t lost loved ones to COVID, and we have reliable, quality child care for our daughter. We love her preschool center, and her teachers are truly awesome.

We still laugh hard, and laugh often — and so do our kids.

Other families aren’t so lucky. Some parents, notably single parents, have no one to lean on when there’s a child care crisis. Some have had to take unpaid leave to care for their kids when their daycares or preschools close, and some have had to leave their jobs altogether. Some have had to bounce their kids around from place to place just so they can keep going to work.

I don’t for one second blame the daycares, child care centers or child care providers for the situation us parents are in. If there were a competition to determine who’s got it worse in all this – parents or providers – providers would almost certainly win. For all the schedule juggling, exhaustion and emotional ups and downs that parents are going through, child care providers are going through it all, too, but times 20, or 30, or however many kids they regularly interact with.

For years before COVID – decades, really – we’ve been talking about the child care crisis in lakes country – a local extension of the nationwide crisis that has existed for just as long. Serious shortages of child care centers and providers, inadequate compensation for child care workers, and costs that are too high for families to reasonably afford – about $200 a week for per-child toddler and preschool care at centers in outstate Minnesota, according to Child Care Aware of Minnesota.

The pandemic has only exacerbated things.

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In an online report on its website, the nonprofit Child Care Aware states that COVID-19, “has underlined the importance of child care for children, working families, and the economy. However, even before the pandemic, years of underinvestment in the early childhood field had left the child care system stressed to its limit. Federal and state relief funds are helping stabilize the Early Childhood Education field, but staffing shortages, low wages, and a broken market continue to present serious challenges.”

The child care system, the report continues, “has funding problems on both the supply side (child care) and demand side (families),” with high operational expenses making the cost of care expensive for families, while earnings for early educators remain “abysmally low” throughout the state, resulting in high turnover and labor shortages.

What they’re saying is, the system is broken.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. As an article that ran in the New York Times last fall points out, there are a lot of other places in the world that are doing child care better, and we in the United States could take a lesson. Called, “How Other Nations Pay for Child Care,” the article states that the U.S. “is an outlier in its low levels of financial support for young children’s care,” contributing about $500 a year in public spending for a toddler’s care, compared with an average of $14,000 a year in other developed countries.

Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, for example, which are the top four spenders on child care in the world, all spend well over $20,000 per year per toddler. New Zealand spends about $10,000 per year, while Israel, the one that’s second-from-the-bottom on the list, spends over $3,000. The U.S. is at the very bottom with its $500.

It begs the question: Why is the U.S., with all its wealth and status and promise of The American Dream, so far behind in this area? If we want to encourage Americans to raise another generation of good citizens, instead of weighing families down with debt and stress, then we need to make big changes to fix what’s broken.

Better funding for child care would check so many boxes on our nation’s list of priorities: healthier kids, healthier parents, a healthier labor force and economy. We need real, meaningful change.

In what could still turn out to be a silver lining to the country’s pandemic-related child care struggles, there is renewed hope and unprecedented impetus for more robust child care funding. For months now, democratic lawmakers have been trying to get the Build Back Better Act passed in the Senate (the House passed it in November). The act includes significant and much-needed financial support for early child care.

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But the $1.75 trillion-plus bill – which also includes funding for other big initiatives like climate change and health care – has been picked apart and haggled over by legislators, and now appears to be on ice.

We need our lawmakers to get back to the table and come to an agreement on this. If not on the Build Back Better Act as a whole, then on the child care component of it, at least. Our country’s kids, parents, and child care providers deserve better. We need a break.

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