With the slow reopening of more New Jersey businesses, affordable childcare is a critical piece of the road back from the pandemic both at the state and national level.

Childcare advocates say the federal government needs to pump as much as $50 billion to stabilize the industry, which was underfunded long before the pandemic.

Patricia Cole, senior director of Zero To Three, a nonprofit advocating early childhood development, the childcare industry is at risk of collapse, as many providers that shut down due to COVID-19 may not be able to reopen unless they receive public assistance.

In New Jersey since April 1, child care centers have had to exclusively serve the children of essential workers under an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy. Family child care centers that are operated in a professional caregiver's home are not affected by that executive order.

Cole said surveys of providers show they are worried that childcare staff members will not return to the industry, as wages already were low before the public health crisis.

"Nationally, 85% of open childcare programs are operating at less than 50% of enrollment capacity and 65% are operating at less than 25% of capacity," according to Erica Phillips, chief operations officer of the Connecticut-based All Our Kin, which trains and supports childcare providers.

Phillips said more than two-thirds of family child care programs that her organization works with are still open, which is twice the rate of childcare centers.

There has been a significant decrease in the number of licensed family child care providers over the past several years, Cole said.

Additionally, Phillips said it has been nearly impossible for family child care providers to access financial assistance, as they do not appear to fit the parameters or either small business loans or unemployment benefits.

Phillips outlined a number of resources needed for family childcare educators as the country continues to deal with pandemic:

— Cleaning supplies, which are hard to access amid the national shortage due to the spike in demand
— Easy access to healthcare professionals to ask questions
— Incentives to remain open
— Mental health consultation for providers, children and families
— Healthcare coverage for providers and staff if they get sick

Advocates believe $50 billion should be earmarked for childcare in the next emergency federal stimulus measure.

The CARES Act that passed Congress last month provided $3.5 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program.

“We need leaders at all levels supporting childcare” as crucial to the pandemic response and economic recovery, Shana Bartley, of the National Women’s Law Center said, adding that data supports the need for at least $9.6 billion a month to stabilize the childcare industry.

Bartley said relief funding should be seen as a "down payment to a publicly financed system," as prior to this situation "parents were paying unaffordable sums for childcare, while workers were receiving such low pay that they have had a hard time feeding their own families."

Bartley said the nation is at a moment of reckoning with an "opportunity to rethink what we do and how we think about the role of childcare in society. It's time we fund it like the essential service that it is."

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