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School districts work to sort out how to pay for child care for essential workers

photo courtesy of Launch

When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a statewide school closure, he said districts should provide child care so health care personnel and first responders could still go to work.

But how to pay for that care is still not sorted out. Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email that “it’s at the discretion of each local school district as to how they decide to respond and provide these services.”

The Puyallup and Bethel districts are providing child care using their own staff, including paraeducators, classroom teachers, assistant principals and principals. Doug Boyles, a spokesman for the Bethel district, said it’s still unknown whether the district will receive any additional funds from the state to cover the cost of providing care for about 42 children.

Tacoma Public Schools is providing some staff, including a nurse to screen children when they arrive and a campus safety officer. The district’s community partners are providing child care staff, with support from some school district paraeducators. District spokesman Dan Voelpel said district leaders are figuring out how to share the cost with community partners and have asked the state superintendent for flexibility to use current funding toward that expense, since the governor requested that child care be offered.

Other districts, including Lake Washington, Seattle and Tukwila also have partnered with child care organizations to provide the service. The Seattle school district dropped the idea of assigning educators to fill child care shifts after pushback from the teacher's union.

But even when districts provide classroom space and meals, child care organizations often shoulder the staffing cost.

And providing this care is expensive for child care providers, especially because of health requirements amid the pandemic that mandate lower student-to-teacher ratios. Some providers also are providing hazard pay to workers to reflect the risks of the coronavirus.

“The whole free child care thing for essential workers basically hasn’t rolled out yet, hasn’t been figured out yet by the governor and the Legislature,” said Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy for the child care referral organization, Child Care Aware of Washington.

Some child care organizations are trying to fundraise and apply for grants to cover the cost. But one provider in the Puget Sound region said that's not sustainable.

Pricco said state leaders have discussed the possibility of expanding the state's subsidized child care program called Working Connections.

“There has been some talk amongst the governor and the Legislature to figure out a way that they can basically extend something like Working Connections to essential workers, even people who are not eligible for it, so they can just get a voucher and go access licensed child care,” Pricco said. “Something like that hasn’t rolled out yet.”

Pricco said child care organizations were already financially struggling before the coronavirus hit, and the situation is bleaker now.

Since the pandemic started, almost 1,400 child care programs have closed, eliminating child care space for 64,500 children. That’s in part because many families have withdrawn their children from care as they work from home. But Child Care Aware of Washington said there are still more than 18,000 available child care vacancies at programs that are still operating and the organization is trying to match families with that care.

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.