With schools closed across Virginia and cases of coronavirus on the rise, state officials are warning of a potential childcare crisis facing essential workers.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent executive order shuttering all public and private schools for the rest of the semester leaves about 1.2 million children under age 12 out of school. The order does not apply to private child care providers, but those that remain open do not have enough space to meet all of the need.
Because of the pandemic, “more than half of our childcare centers have closed. We’ve lost a significant number of slots,” said Jenna Conway, Virginia’s chief school readiness officer. “There’s a concern about lack of capacity to support our essential personnel.”
To address this issue, Conway is coordinating joint efforts by the Virginia Department of Social Services and Virginia Department of Education to develop more emergency child care options for “critical members of the workforce” during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Critical” workers include first responders, health care workers, essential government functions, basic service providers such as utilities and sanitation, and necessary retailers like grocery stores and pharmacies, according to a joint DSS/DOE guidance document. In the health care industry alone, Virginia workers have about 80,000 children under age 12.
The Harvest Foundation recently coordinated with agencies in Martinsville and Henry County to provide childcare for those workers.
Conway updated the Virginia Board of Education on these efforts Thursday afternoon during a special virtual meeting to discuss issues related to COVID-19.
“We are not at full crisis mode yet,” she told board members via Zoom. The virus outbreak has not peaked, and “the governor has said it could be May, so we’re trying to prepare our communities to identify their needs now so they should be ready to stand up emergency child care if necessary.”
The two agencies have issued a joint guidance document outlining the different options for providers to offer emergency child care while still following health precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Depending on the need, “we might need to rely on public schools,” Conway said. Under certain circumstances, schools can offer emergency child care for 20 days without being licensed by DSS, she explained.
If schools plan to provide services for longer, care for younger children, or other conditions that require licensure, “we are working very closely with DSS to expedite the licensure process,” she said.
Virginia parents can search for emergency child care by contacting 866-KIDS-TLC or visiting https://vachildcare.com.
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.