The YWCA Olga Madrid Center.
When the COVID-19 crisis closed schools, YWCA San Antonio began providing emergency child care to families in need. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When the coronavirus pandemic closed schools, YWCA San Antonio began providing emergency child care for health care workers, first responders, and other essential workers who found themselves on the front lines. We at the YWCA believe that child care is virtually always emergency child care, especially for women, who still hold the primary responsibility for caring for children in their families, and more so for lower income women who work hourly jobs. Child care represents a basic requirement – along with food, housing, and transportation – that empowers women to work toward self-sufficiency.  

If the pandemic has any sort of silver lining, it may be to shift the conversation toward the inherent inequity in our social and economic system – from the digital divide to access to at-home educational resources for students to food insecurity. That inequity extends to lack of access to low-cost and high-quality child care as a critical component of an equitable workforce, in which women not only participate, but thrive and are able to contribute fully to their families and communities.

Child care is a workforce issue on three levels. First, it provides mothers – and fathers, too, but primarily mothers, who still traditionally are responsible for arranging for care – the peace of mind of knowing that their children are in a safe learning environment while they work or to go back to school to advance their careers, improve their earning power, care for their families and – yes – work their way out of poverty. In many struggling neighborhoods in San Antonio, there are child care deserts where low-cost or affordable child care near homes or places of work is scarce. For working families, child care often represents the second highest expense in a working family’s budget behind housing. 

Second, meeting the need for affordable quality child care is not as simple as just opening a new center or opening up spaces – it’s about building the workforce that provides it. Demand for quality child care far exceeds supply, which depends on a well-paid and trained workforce to teach our youngest children. Unfortunately, pre-K teachers earn far less than teachers of school-age children, and turnover in child care centers is high.

Infants and toddlers require intensive, hands-on, and low-ratio educating, nurturing, and caregiving – and the amount of training and certification child care teachers must complete often outweighs the salary earned. Many of the teachers themselves are young mothers who often cannot find child care themselves, in order to attend the trainings. Policymakers and funders must commit to invest in training and subsidies for salaries for these professionals, who provide far more than babysitting services; they provide essential, early childhood education during the most formative years of brain development.

Finally, child care is a workforce issue because it prepares the next generation of the workforce. Everyone gets this, but what is not understood is that for children from vulnerable families, born into generational poverty and trauma, the education gap begins at birth and widens exponentially without high-quality early childhood development services coupled with social-emotional support for children and families. Investment must be made in building the capacity of child care centers to provide for mental health support, social-emotional learning, and high-quality early child development curriculum. Both are critical to preparing children to enter kindergarten and beyond with skills to succeed. 

Before COVID-19 hit, Workforce Solutions Alamo, the local agency which provides child care subsidies to financially-challenged working families, consistently had a waitlist with thousands of families in need of child care in Bexar County. This past week, the Texas Workforce Commission released $40 million around the state to expand child care subsidies for essential workers. But now because of pandemic-related regulations, child care centers can only provide care to essential workers, leaving hourly workers who may have lost jobs as a result of COVID-19 without child care, making already challenging lives of navigating homeschooling, unemployment, and the grocery store more challenging.

So, what can be done? How can we help all parents – those deemed “essential” and “non-essential” during this time of great need? We at YWCA San Antonio believe there need to be two paths: One for now, and another for after the immediate crisis.

What we need to do now

  • Allow child care centers to operate as safely as possible within pandemic standards for both “essential” and “non-essential” workers, those who work from their homes and those who are looking for jobs. 
  • Provide the support (guidance, funding and monitoring) to ensure that centers can operate as safely as possible within pandemic standards, such as  health and safety supplies to manage social distancing (room dividers, masks, cleaning supplies, gloves, and other supplies), an onsite health paraprofessional to assist with safety standards, and  paid sick leave for staff. 

What needs to happen after the crisis

  • Expand and continue to fund child care subsidies for those families who qualify under the income requirements. 
  • Institute universal pre-K in San Antonio by investing in high-quality existing centers and helping them to expand their reach and capacity.
  • Ensure high-quality training and wage parity for early childhood educators, investing in their skills and paying them a fair, living and honorable wage.

With the investments in and changes to child care, we can create a safety net for the most vulnerable in our community and ultimately build the workforce our city needs to continue to grow and to attract new companies to San Antonio.  Most importantly, we need to keep equity at the center of all recovery conversations and efforts and include child care as part of the recovery solution. 

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Francesca Rattray

Francesca Rattray serves as CEO of YWCA San Antonio. A transplant from the Northeast, she has lived in San Antonio for 14 years, working in nonprofit management, the arts, and community development.