The hygiene of 3- and 4-year-olds is now a fulcrum for the state’s economy.
Keeping the preschool set at a safe social distance is a slightly easier task than training cats to walk in a line. And it’s one of many complications now faced by state leaders pondering how to reopen child care centers.
It’s a sticky problem that must be solved quickly — far sooner than the June 29 target for reopening those centers now prescribed by Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency orders to prevent spread of COVID-19.
In the six weeks until then, Baker will be leading the state through early steps of a four-stage plan to reopen the economy. In many cases, darkened day cares and preschools will keep workers frozen on the sidelines. They’ll find it hard if not impossible to restart their jobs — in factories, offices, restaurants and elsewhere — as those who watch their kids await a green light to reopen, as well as the rules they must follow to do so. (New Hampshire allowed day cares to open under new health protocols this week.)
It’s not just a question of scheduling. Child care providers are in the same economic straits as other businesses, and some will not emerge from the shutdown at all. The Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, last month estimated how many child care slots would be lost without emergency funds from the government. Nearly a third of Massachusetts’ child care supply could evaporate, or spaces for 52,000 babies, toddlers and tots.
Bear in mind, Massachusetts was already squeezed from a child care shortage before coronavirus crossed the state line. There were 2.9 children living in the state for every available child care slot.
Baker says state officials are trying to untangle this, looking to other states and countries for suggestions, though his comments this week didn’t suggest much urgency: “It’s one of those issues that everybody knows they need to find an answer on, and we fully expect, as we roll forward, we’re going to have to find one too.”
He also points out that centers that opened to families of first responders and health care workers have extra room — some 6,500 slots now available to anyone. Taking advantage of those won’t be easy for working families forced to travel far to use one of those spaces. And even under the best of circumstances, those 6,500 slots would fill quickly.
No, parents need their children’s familiar nurseries and classrooms to reopen so that they can go back to work, and it needs to happen soon if the state’s economy has any shot at recovery.