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MATTHEW HANSEN: Stinner: COVID-19 Exposes Nebraska’s Child Care Problems

MATTHEW HANSEN: Stinner: COVID-19 Exposes Nebraska’s Child Care Problems

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COVID-19 is bad enough. Our state’s child care reality is making it worse.

Matthew Hansen for 10-17

Matthew Hansen Managing Editor Buffett Early Childhood Institute

That’s the message Nebraska parents and employers sent to Sen. John Stinner in a recent survey revealing the pandemic’s impact on Nebraska child care.

Stinner delivered that message to the Nebraska Legislature Tuesday, releasing the survey results while arguing we need to build a better child care system.

We need to do this to rebuild from the pandemic, he thinks. We need to do it to build our future.

“If we don’t have the kind of child care we need across the state…working parents will have a hard time staying productively employed,” the Gering Republican wrote before speaking about child care in the Legislature. “Businesses won’t have the workforce they need, and our state and local economies won’t be able to fully recover.

“Sufficient, high-quality child care is a critical piece of infrastructure that Nebraska needs to run smoothly.”

Stinner’s survey shows that Nebraska’ current child care system isn’t well-built enough to withstand a normal year, much less one like 2020.

When our child care system falters, it severely strains the parents relying on child care, the business owners employing those parents, and the Nebraska economy itself.

The numbers are striking. Some 51% of 1,050 parents responding to Stinner’s survey said they have missed work because of child care issues during COVID-19. Nearly half had to reduce work hours. More than a third lack sufficient child care for their children.

The voices from the survey are more striking still. Many Nebraska parents are fearful and frustrated.

How am I supposed to work full-time and care for my children full-time?

Why am I being forced to choose between my economic future and my family’s future?

“It has made it extremely hard to be a good mom and a good wife, all while trying to be a good employee,” wrote a Buffalo County parent. “It’s been hard. It’s been draining. Above all, it’s been financially debilitating.”

Business owners surveyed also reported massive child care challenges. Nearly 80% of employers said they have made changes to employee schedules because of child care issues during COVID. And 71% of employers said workers have arrived late, left early, or missed work because of child care problems.

“Some parents of young children are taking them to work or a friend’s house or grandparent because several day cares have shut down,” wrote an Ainsworth business owner. “I’m afraid some families have considered moving away if we can’t offer high-quality, reliable child care in Ainsworth.”

These aren’t new problems in Nebraska. Many child care providers operate on razor-thin profit margins and face near-constant employee turnover. Parents have long struggled to find affordable care for their children. Some 91% of counties lack the capacity to meet child care demand. In 12 counties, there are simply no licensed child care providers at all.

This struggle wounds our economy. The state loses an eye-popping $745 million annually because parents quit work, cut back hours, or move because they can’t find child care, says a UNL study conducted pre-pandemic.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these problems.

Some 231 Nebraska licensed child care providers closed during the pandemic. Not nearly enough new providers opened to replace them. It’s becoming even harder to find quality care, particularly for infants and toddlers living in rural counties.

While the pandemic has harmed Nebraska child care, it has also helped expose solutions.

At Stinner’s request, the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission recently calculated how the state can stairstep funding of the early childhood system. That increase, if paired with more federal and private dollars, could fully fund Nebraska early childhood by 2030.

Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee, is taking the first step, sponsoring a bill to increase early childhood funding by $5 million over two years.

He thinks we can chip away at this problem—that we must invest in our youngest citizens so that they, their families, and the state can prosper.

“For everyone, especially parents and business owners, I want you to know I am committed to addressing the early childhood education concerns you raised,” Stinner wrote. “It’s not something we can fix overnight, but, with a phased-in approach, we can strategically build an early childhood system based on the size of the economy to which we aspire.”

Matthew Hansen, a longtime Nebraska journalist, is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

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