Op-Ed: High Quality Child Care Must Be a Top Priority in NJ’s COVID-19 Recovery

Coming back from COVID-19 will demand a new way of thinking that must include the recognition that child care is inseparable from our success
Michele Siekerka

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt untold damage to New Jersey, with a tragic human toll and a devastating impact on our economy and our workforce. As the state continues to reopen, we must remember that one sector is surprisingly pivotal to our ultimate recovery: child care.

The child care sector has an extensive economic impact on the state. It provides large and small business jobs, enables parents to work and prepares young minds to succeed later in school and in life. From a child-centered perspective, we support a system of New Jersey-licensed child care that is accessible, affordable and of the highest quality.

High quality, however, should not be judged singularly on the educational program. We have learned during this pandemic that high quality also should include ensuring the highest level of health and safety standards as they relate to the physical environment young children are placed in. It is for this reason, NJBIA supports the network of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ 4,100 community-based child care centers.

High cost of not having child care

As it relates to child care as an economic engine, a new report from ReadyNation, a network of over 2,700 business leaders across the country, estimates that the lack of licensed child care for working parents of infants and toddlers could cost New Jersey’s economy $1.7 billion per year, stemming from lost earnings, productivity and revenue.

So as New Jersey’s workplaces begin to reopen, bolstering the sector becomes even more urgent. To this end, our decision-makers must continue to look at the child care industry as “essential” — providing it with the incentives and supports necessary.

The quality of early education programs must always be top-of-mind to ensure that young children attain the positive social and educational outcomes these programs can provide. Nurturing, stimulating environments are known to be critical for healthy brain development. These environments, however, need to be free of toxins such as lead, which causes a lifetime of developmental and intellectual disabilities. New Jersey already has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation with all licensed child care providers in our state already meeting this high standard — a standard even beyond our public schools.

High-quality child care can also help close educational and professional disparities for years to come. For example, a longitudinal National Institutes of Health study of more than 1,300 children found that children in higher-quality child care were better prepared for school compared with children in lower-quality child care. At age 15, they were still performing slightly above their peers and had significantly lower levels of behavior problems.

Addressing COVID-19 disparities

While the economic impact of COVID-19 has put child care at risk, it’s clear that we need to continue investing in this sector, like the supplemental funds offered to some child care providers from the first federal CARES Act to help them purchase PPE and necessary cleaning supplies. Boosting the economy as we emerge from the shutdown requires that we fix and strengthen the child care system to help address the disparities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

But how?

First, federal and state policymakers should prioritize support for high-quality child care that evaluates not only the educational program, but health and safety standards.

Second, lawmakers should work with providers to increase compensation for providers, the workforce behind the workforce, in order to ensure the child care sector is able to recruit and retain the top talent it needs to thrive. The margins that a child care provider works within are tight due to high standards such as class size and teacher/student ratios. Licensed child care providers can only make the financials work if they have filled three- and four-year-old classrooms to balance the high cost of infant and toddler care.

Third, given that businesses and New Jersey taxpayers will be operating in a challenging economy, we should ensure that government funds are directed to those children most in need in any child care setting they are located in. When limited state and federal funding is available, it is only right to serve those children most in need first.

As New Jersey looks toward the future, we need to build a better and a more thoughtful child care system that sets every child on a path to a successful adult life while being cognizant of the burden businesses and taxpayers must shoulder as they are asked “to do more” due to economic challenges caused by the pandemic.