Local legislators are hoping to free up federal money to help endangered Pennsylvania childcare centers reopen after the pandemic.
State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, whose district covers parts of South Philadelphia, is introducing a bill with state Rep. Mary Jo Daley, a Montgomery County Democrat, to help workers and childcare centers weather the financial crisis. Fiedler is hoping to secure part of the $106 million in funding that the state received as part of the CARES Act.
“It’s imminent and it’s really important,” Fiedler said. “Right now, we’re seeing Philadelphia moving into somewhat of a reopening phase and we need to make sure childcare centers that are really at the heart of our economy and our families are able to open and have the support that they need. And quite frankly, they do not have that right now.”
There are 605 childcare providers who serve more than 44,000 children in Pennsylvania. The Start Strong PA and Pre-K for PA campaigns point to recent surveys that found nearly one-third of those childcare centers would not be able to reopen without funding.
“Pennsylvania has received $106 million in funding to support childcare providers through the Federal CARES Act,” Fiedler said. “And $51 million of that has been allocated, so there is money and we need to work very hard to get it out the doors to the folks who are in our communities and need it right now. Our hope is that this will draw bipartisan support. Children and childcare centers should not be a partisan issue. They are part of our lives across South Philly and across the state.”
Last week, Fiedler and Daley took part in a joint virtual policy hearing, which included state Sens. Judy Schwank and Lindsey Williams as well as parents and childcare workers from across the state. It allowed workers in the field to stress the importance of the funding.
The Children’s Playhouse Early Learning Center on Passyunk Avenue is one of those institutions that would be impacted. CEO Demaris Alvarado-Rodriguez said the center had more than 270 students before it closed on March 16. They expect only half to return when the state deems it safe to reopen. The fewer dollars coming in simply don’t stack up against fixed costs for most centers. Additional funding for extensive cleaning could help ease parents’ anxiety about returning their children to a safe environment.
“There is a significant cost to reopening our programs,” Alvarado-Rodriguez said. “In order to be able to successfully transition our students and families back from the pandemic, we need financial support, supplies and support from our legislators to ensure that our students are safe when they return.”
Kate Reber is a South Philly resident and a mother of three who has taught in the School District of Philadelphia.
“I’ve been a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for 13 years so I know a fair amount about doing much with little,” Reber said. “But we cannot expect those who provide this essential service to sustain their workforce or operate their businesses without greater support.”
Reber said she believes there would be a trickle-down effect that could affect the school district, which will have its own difficulties in reopening after the pandemic.
“The only way that I’ve been able to return from multiple maternity leaves to my classroom is because I’ve had the opportunity to send my child to daycare,” Reber said. “If my kids cannot be safely cared for outside of my house, I cannot leave to go to work in a Philadelphia classroom, so my classroom would remain without a teacher. … It would create another wrinkle in the related challenge of how to reopen the whole k-12 education system.”
The bill to support childcare centers would help to cover costs, including payroll, benefits, utilities and loss of tuition payments associated with COVID-19 closure. It would also include resources for Pre-K and Head Start, allowing programs to extend into the summer and alleviate some early childhood learning losses for students.
Fiedler says the legislature is a big step in the right direction but not the final stride of a long journey of recovery.
“This is going to be an ongoing issue as we continue to grapple with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fiedler said. “This is not a one-time fix … I think it’s something we’re going to see play out over the months and years to come as they continue to try to figure this out. I think it’s incumbent upon us as state lawmakers to step up and say this is a priority for us.”