Child care choices limited for returning workers

Ryan McBride/Staff file photoThe Y Academy in Peabody is one of 500 emergency child care centers the state allowed to stay open to provide care for children of frontline workers in the pandemic. There are a lot of unknown factors at play now as more parents try to return to the workplace, but most child care centers are not allowed to reopen until late June.

BOSTON — With workers expected to return to their jobs in the coming weeks, child care options for parents will be limited, advocates say.

Gov. Charlie Baker and state officials rolled out a plan on Monday to restart the coronavirus-battered economy by allowing businesses to reopen. But the plan leaves non-emergency child care facilities closed until the end of June, as the state continues to battle the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, public and private schools have been closed for the remainder of the academic year, leaving working parents of school-aged kids with few options.

Advocates say a lack of child care could put many working families in a bind.

"And for some, it's not just a question of who will take care of their kids," said Lew Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. Finfer said low-wage workers risk losing unemployment benefits if they're called back to work, but they cannot find someone to watch their kids.

Baker closed state-licensed child care facilities in March as part of a broader plan to contain spread of the coronavirus. The centers are not set to reopen until June 29, under state orders, and the Baker administration has yet to release the guidelines it will expect them to follow.

To assist health care workers and first responders, the state set up more than 500 emergency child care centers, many of which are operated by existing providers. But priority is given to children of people working on the front lines of the fight against the virus.

Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said he has been fielding calls from constituents concerned about the lack of child care options.

"With no school, parents need to make sure that their kids are cared for," he said. "So if we're calling people back to work, we need to fill any child care gaps."

Marie-Frances Rivera, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, said the state needs to provide more support and guidance.

"Parents should not be forced to work when circumstances such as lack of safe and affordable child care make it impossible," she said in a statement.

On Monday, Baker said the state is working on plans to "safely reopen" child care facilities and has been comparing notes with governors elsewhere.

Complicating matters is the fact that demand on the state's fragile child care system will be hard to assess.

Amy O'Leary, director of the Early Education for All campaign, said some parents will continue to work remotely, if possible. Others might not yet feel comfortable putting their kids back in child care.

At the same time, spaces in child care centers may be limited. Providers will likely need to reduce the number of spaces to comply with social distancing rules. Other centers might be not able to reopen because of the financial impact of the coronavirus.

"Right now there's a lot of unknowns, which isn't helping with an already stressful situation," O'Leary said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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