State Representative Chris Freeland: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the repercussions of the state’s response have been felt deeply throughout Kentucky. Thousands of Kentuckians are still waiting for their unemployment insurance claims to be processed. More than a third of Kentuckians are now on Medicaid, and Kentucky businesses are struggling to remain open while keeping employees, customers, and clients safe. Without a doubt, this is the most challenging year we have faced in decades. However, I am still optimistic that we can overcome these challenges. Frankly, I think our best days are still ahead of us, but we are going to have to work hard – and pray hard – to reach them.
As I shared in previous columns, legislators are using the time before we convene the 2021 Regular Session to develop a plan to recover from the outbreak of COVID. This week, I would like to dig into another issue that I am particularly concerned about – how COVID impacts childcare providers. Childcare centers are regulated in Kentucky, which means that there are basic qualifications and specific standards that you need to meet to operate one. Those standards differ between the types of childcare providers – depending on if it is an in-home provider with only a handful of children or a larger center with several classes and more than a hundred children.
Even before the pandemic, Kentucky did not have enough quality, affordable childcare facilities to meet parents’ needs. Some areas of the state are childcare deserts, with little to no registered, licensed, or regulated centers. Fifty percent of all Kentucky residents live in a childcare desert, with 66 percent of rural families and 55 percent of low-income families living in areas without enough licensed childcare providers. Why is access to quality childcare important? Study after study points to early access to quality childcare as a crucial part of kindergarten preparedness and overall success. In a state like ours, where so many mothers (approximately 76 percent) are working, finding a spot in an affordable, quality center can significantly impact our economy.
These private providers are small business owners. They provide an essential service, create jobs, pay taxes, and participate in their local communities. Their business is their livelihood. Any parent who has ever paid for daycare knows that it is expensive, often more than $150 a week. Surveys show that it is a costly business to operate when done correctly. In June, our Program Review and Investigations Committee heard testimony from a childcare provider in Western Kentucky who shared that many of her colleagues had limited access to federal loans designed to help small businesses through COVID. These businesses were struggling with thousands of dollars in lost revenue needed to pay their bills. While childcare centers are now open for business, the future remains uncertain as many believe the state will close them down again. If that does happen, we have seen projections showing that 40 percent of childcare centers across the state are at high risk of permanently closing their doors. This will further expand the childcare crisis. Also, in June, Jennifer Washburn, the owner of a successful and award-winning child center, iKids Childhood Enrichment Center, testified to the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment. As a member of this committee, I was honored to listen to Ms. Washburn and learn what I can do to help a Marshall County business owner. During her testimony, Ms. Washburn described the lack of communication the state provided to her and others for re-opening and how the new imposed guidelines would make it nearly impossible for her center to survive financially. She also expressed frustration with the state’s unwillingness to listen to her suggestions that could help all childcare providers across the Commonwealth.
To date, childcare centers have not been a hotspot for transmitting the virus. Many reopened over two months ago with fewer children. Data provided by the Kentucky Department for Public Health shows that children do not appear to be catching the virus in the same numbers as other age groups. Children can still get the coronavirus, and some carry the virus without symptoms. However, it is also important to note that licensed, regulated, and registered childcare centers have stringent cleaning and reporting requirements. They have experience dealing with everything from the Flu to Rotavirus and head lice. Childcare providers have a vested interest – their livelihood and reputation – in taking the appropriate steps to ensure children’s safety.
On March 19, the Governor issued Interim Guidance for Limited Duration Child Care Programs, which permitted approved healthcare facilities to partner with YMCA’s or other licensed childcare providers for those in need of emergency child care. This was extremely helpful in allowing our medical providers and first responders to serve as an example of what can be done to keep children, providers, and parents safe. Just a day after releasing that guidance, the Governor ordered the rest of the state’s licensed, certified, and registered programs to shut down. This included all childcare centers and family childcare homes. This decision left many families in panic as they rely on childcare to provide a safe, nurturing place for their children while they work to provide for their family. The brunt of the shutdown was felt across childcare providers as a silent crisis began unfolding that impacts not only our children’s development but also our workforce. Providers across the state were forced to shutter without any idea how they would pay their bills, meet payroll, or even reopen.
After three months, on May 21, Governor Beshear announced that family-based childcare would be allowed to reopen on June 8, followed by center-based programs on June 15. Both are required to adhere to health and safety guidelines issued by the state, including mandatory facemasks for staff, stepped up cleaning procedures, and decreased class sizes with no more than ten in a room. Some privately owned centers even had to cut hours, causing more stress to parents, and endangering their livelihood further. To use a childcare center, Kentuckians must agree to stay away from groups of ten or more people and follow other public health guidelines.
The childcare shutdown has been extremely controversial, as was the limit in class size implemented at the reopening. Earlier this summer, the class size limit was challenged as part of a lawsuit filed in a Northern Kentucky Circuit Court. In the case, the judge issued a temporary restraining order and set the class size limit at 28 children. However, the Supreme Court stepped in and halted any restraining orders until the “full record of proceedings below is reviewed by this court, all parties have been allowed to address the orders in briefs, and this court issues a final order addressing these issues of paramount public importance to all citizens of the commonwealth.” I think it is noteworthy that the Governor has lost every case challenging his orders, primarily because the courts have ruled that he either does not have the authority, or did not use the proper process to do others. We are all waiting to see what the Supreme Court will decide.
While the courts determine what the Governor can do, we will continue to prepare for the 2021 Regular Session and find ways to help childcare facilities and other small businesses.
I have received numerous phone calls and e-mails on this issue, so I wanted to discuss it with you. My colleagues and I plan to continue to work with the Child Care Advisory Council to get more information and see how we can help. In the meantime, please know that I am always available to discuss concerns or any other local issue that you find pressing. I can be reached through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181. You can contact me via e-mail Chris.Freeland@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky Legislature Home Page legislature.ky.gov.