For more than a decade, I’ve fought to make the case that “early learning” and childcare are at the very center of our state’s conversation around workforce – that is, the workforce of tomorrow. It’s during those early learning years when children develop, not only cognitively, but socially and emotionally – beginning to foster the “soft skills” of decision-making and behavior control that will no doubt be critical when one day entering the workforce.
But, today, we are fighting not only for the workforce of tomorrow, but also for the workforce of today. Millions of Florida’s children, between the ages of zero and five, make up the fabric of our state’s early learning system. From Pre-K in our public schools to private childcare centers, family childcare homes to faith-based schools, thousands of childcare providers are charged, each day, with keeping our children healthy and safe – and preparing each of them for Kindergarten.
COVID-19 has left thousands of these programs closed, some permanently. (In Miami-Dade alone, we have seen more than 80 percent of our early learning centers close their doors.) Those that have sought to remain open have seen their attendance reduced dramatically. CDC guidelines of “six feet of separation” seem impossible when applied to a group of three year olds. And, our early learning directors and teachers have struggled to obtain the necessary PPE to protect the health and safety of the children and families they serve.
My passion for early learning is founded upon the overwhelming body of research that speaks to the critical nature of the earliest years in children’s lives. My legislative pursuits are guided by decades of minimal investment and policy changes that could have ensured that Florida’s early learning system is universally high-quality. These passions and pursuits have led me to be a vocal proponent for direct intervention in Florida’s early learning system during these difficult times. I have urged our state leaders to consider the obvious – and less obvious – challenges that have arisen. And, those calls have led to emergency childcare for our first responders and healthcare workers, as well as much-needed protections for our early learning teachers.
Now, we must focus on protecting the system in the months ahead. Florida and its business community must take several steps to ensure our early learning system survives the landscape upon which we are embarking:
- At the federal level, significant investments will need to be made to offset the challenges created by limited attendance and reductions in center size due to CDC guidelines. The current proposal of $50 billion to fund early learning programs is a major step forward from the original proposal of $7 billion. However, our focus must also be on making sure these dollars make it into these centers as quickly and effectively as possible.
- At the state level, Florida must continue to on its current path of ensuring that those centers serving children living in poverty are fully funded – and that the children of our essential workers are prioritized. We must look at the guidelines for subsidized childcare in a world where unemployment has reached new heights – and many parents have seen their income dramatically reduced.
- Florida’s business community must also play a major role by supporting local community efforts, providing continued flexibility in work arrangements, and, if possible, offering “on-site” options for employees and families.
- If necessary action is not taken, “childcare deserts” will begin to appear all across our state. Communities in the most need will find an overwhelming demand of parents returning to work who simply cannot find care for their children. Our commitment to ensuring that Florida’s economy can reopen – and do so safely – is predicated upon our ability to look comprehensively at all the challenges created by this pandemic. That includes childcare.
The only thing certain about the next few months is uncertainty.
My fight has always been for the workforce of tomorrow, insisting that we provide every child in Florida with an opportunity to thrive. This is about the workforce of tomorrow – and the workforce of today. We can support and protect both. And, we must.