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Sen. Tina Smith virtually meets with community members to discuss growing need for child care

Winona Daily News - 2/21/2021

Feb. 20—U.S. Sen. Tina Smith spoke with a number of community members Friday afternoon to discuss the decline in child care options and the growing need for more, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wear on.

While numerous COVID-related restrictions are the primary reason for the stark decline in child care options, Smith noted how it has been steadily declining for the last 20 years, per statistics provided by the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

"This is an economic issue," Smith said. "We are losing child care providers at a crisis level, especially in rural places ... and the pandemic is making this so much worse."

Ann Riebel, community education director for Winona Area Public Schools, built upon this from a local perspective.

WAPS provides a school-aged child care program as well as a licensed child care center for student parents. Riebel's experience with these programs, as well as with other related committees in the broader Winona, grants her the knowledge to attest to the growing need for additional services.

Riebel mentioned how up until February 2020, there was a subcommittee that was working to start some new child care-related initiatives, but these were stifled by the arrival of COVID-19 in the community.

On top of that, the very process of running these kinds of services has been made more difficult by the various mandates that have been imposed on all businesses, Riebel said.

The pandemic has pushed an already noted issue "to the brink," as Smith put it, and put many providers at risk of going out of business.

A result of the lack of child care is parents, specifically mothers, leaving their jobs so they can care for their children who still require adult supervision.

Citing the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, Smith noted how both mothers and fathers began leaving the workforce around last April. However, while many fathers later returned to the workforce, many mothers did not.

"Moms have regained virtually none of their lost ground," Smith said

"Labor participation among moms with young children dropped a little over 11% between September of 2019 and November of 2020," Smith added. "This is a signal and a symbol of how significant this child care challenge is, because if you can't find a safe, affordable place for your child, you can't work."

This was an issue that Christie Ransom, president and CEO of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, elaborated on in regards to the business community in Winona, noting how accessibility to affordable and high quality child care is essential to a growing economy.

"The pandemic really truly laid that bare — the indispensable role that child care plays in our lives and the lives of working families," Ransom said. "(COVID) almost showed us where we're lacking in a broader scale."

Ransom echoed Smith in the growing lack of providers and how it's been an issue since before the pandemic. Also like Smith, Ransom touched on how the pandemic exasperated an already critical issue, with parents leaving their jobs because they need to watch their children in place of regular providers.

While the number of people in the workforce has continued to grow in the last year — which Ransom described as "workers looking for work" — that doesn't take away from the fact that many parents, namely mothers, are still unemployed because they have no providers to watch their children.

As the country heads into economic recovery, Ransom said child care needs to be addressed and assistance needs to be provided to people who want to start centers and in-home day cares again:

"I think the amount of red tape that they have to go through and the lack of assistance seem to make it impossible or less favorable for people to navigate those opportunities."

Through testimonials like the ones she heard Friday and others like them, Smith said she and her constituents are working to secure $50 billion that will go to building the United States' child care system and stabilizing it.

So far, Smith noted, $10 billion has been secured as part of December's COVID relief package, with $135 million being distributed throughout the state already.

While $10 billion is a significant amount of money, the additional $40 billion is still necessary, according to Smith, and is currently being negotiated in Congress for the next COVID relief package.

Additional funding will be helpful, especially for the Winona State University Children's Center, which was forced to close for almost six months last year and, upon reopening, adopted a restriction which limited child care to only WSU students and WSU families.

This was something that WSU Children's Center lead teacher Cassie Stratton acknowledged put a lot of families in an unfavorable predicament, which wasn't what the university wanted to do.

Diana Perez, a mother to four who had enrolled each of her children in the Children's Center at various points throughout the last eight years, said she had to enroll in the university in order to keep her children in the center.

Additional issues began to arise as the center did not charge for its services for a period, leading to a complete stoppage of income.

This was an incident that could've put any other child care service out of business, Stratton said.

"Quite honestly, I'm sure the only reason we are still open today is because of our partnership with Winona State University," Stratton admitted. "An independent child care center would not have been able to shut their doors for six months and reopen."

With the assistance of the additional relief that is being negotiated, Stratton expressed a hope that the Children's Center will be able to pull back on some of its restrictions.

"I'm just really glad there's movement towards recovery efforts and we still are hopeful that we will get to reopen (in) a bigger capacity and again serve the numbers in our community that we once did."

In other words, child care is a crucial component to a thriving community. Without child care, a community cannot flourish.

Smith said as much: "Child care is a part of the basic economic infrastructure that we need in this country, just like housing and transportation. Our economy is not going to work if families can't find safe, affordable, good quality child care options."


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