The pandemic highlighted flaws in the child-care system. This Alabama advocate offers solutions. 

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 1.4 million U.S. mothers of school-age children remain jobless after dropping out of the workforce during the pandemic’s early days, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.  

Working parents have cited a lack of child care as one of the main reasons for not returning to work, according to several recent studies 

But child care should be at the top of lawmakers’ priority lists, said Olivia Singleton, outreach coordinator for VOICES for Alabama’s Children, one of the state’s largest advocacy groups dedicated to issues affecting children and families. 

“Supporting the child care industry not only supports economic development but also supports children, families, and supports an industry that is mainly made up of women,” Singleton said. About 95% of child care workers are women, and more likely to be women of color. 

Earlier this year, federal stimulus legislation directed $25 billion to child care providers and expanded child tax credits to help working parents. Congress is again considering hundreds of billions more for child care and early childhood education. 

“We know the conversations around improving access to child care are happening and the momentum for big change is there,” Singleton said. “We just have to keep it going even after life goes back to ‘normal.’” 

Reckon spoke with Singleton this week about how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect working parents and struggling child care providers – and what more could be done to help them. The interview has been edited for length. 

Reckon: Now that we’re 16 months into the pandemic, how would you describe the state of child care here in Alabama and in the South more broadly?  

Olivia Singleton

Singleton: The problems we faced with child care in the South were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be thinking about what we need to do to help our child care infrastructure in the long run. The pandemic has brought more attention to the need for access to safe, quality child care so that parents feel comfortable returning to work.  

Most Alabamians live in what is considered a child care desert, a Census tract where there are more than three children for every available seat in a licensed child care center. This was (the case) before the pandemic, and not every child care center we had before was able to reopen.  

Are we still seeing the same problems with child care now that we saw in the early days of the pandemic? 

The challenges now look different, because although child care providers are opening back up, some people may not feel completely safe sending their children back, or their work situation may have changed since the beginning of the pandemic.  

When the pandemic first began, everyone was at home and child care centers were closing, attempting to serve smaller populations, serving children of essential workers. But now with people returning to life outside of the home, providers are having to be concerned with COVID safety for both children and caregivers in their centers. Parents are having to worry about finding care to allow them to confidently leave the home again.  

We also know that the Delta variant is impacting our children more than what we were originally seeing with COVID-19, so this brings another level of concern to parents and providers taking care of children.  

Are there solutions that were implemented in the past year that have been working? Any that didn’t work or didn’t help as you thought they would? 

We understand how essential this industry is to the economic health of our state and would like to see our state legislators tackle this issue head-on in the next legislative session.  

Alabama Department of Human Resources (which oversees child care in the state) has done a great job of distributing federal funds where they need to go to keep child care centers open, providing child care assistance to first responders and the health care community, and keeping centers informed of the changing CDC guidelines throughout the pandemic.  

The advocacy community continues to work together with state agencies to streamline communications to centers across the state so they have access to all the resources available to them.   

Has anything surprised you in the child care community since the pandemic started? 

The most surprising thing to me has been the industry’s ability to pivot. Every aspect of child care has had to pivot in the pandemic, from parents learning how to work from home while simultaneously homeschooling their children to child care providers having to problem solve how to serve children safely in the middle of a crisis that our generation has never experienced.  

What’s an under-reported policy issue related to child care that you’ve been seeing through your advocacy work with VOICES? 

We are hearing more and more about the needs of (child care) centers that previously have not had the capacity nor funding to address, such as building repair, plumbing updates, employee recruitment and retention, etc.  

The pandemic has reiterated the importance of this industry. We as a state can begin supporting and investing in (child care) at the ground level. 

 What more could be done (or is being done) to improve child care access and affordability in Alabama and the South? 

We must continue the conversation about funding safe, quality child care even after we are finally on the other side of the pandemic. VOICES for Alabama’s Children is part of the Child Care Coalition, a task force of nonprofits, business leaders, care providers and key stakeholders in Alabama discussing the state of child care in Alabama and forming actionable solutions addressing the challenges in front of us.  

We know the conversations around child care are happening and the momentum for big change is there, we just have to keep it going even after life goes back to ‘normal’.  

Anything else you think readers should know? 

Tell your story. Your voice and experience are important. Seek out your legislator and share the challenges of your community with them. They can’t change what they don’t know about.  

Alabamians are known as hard workers, but we need a strong child care infrastructure to keep Alabama working and moving forward.