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Commentary: The time to fix Orange County’s childcare is now

A student watches a teacher on a computer screen.
A student watches a teacher on a computer screen. An early childhood educator writes that Orange County must meet challenges to education for young students.
(Halfpoint - stock.adobe.com)

Childcare has come under intense focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as tens of millions of children across the nation suddenly found themselves on extended breaks from regular childcare and parents were thrust into a life-altering dilemma: working from home while simultaneously educating and supporting their young children.

The pandemic closed schools and childcare programs, drawing increased attention to an already existing challenge. Even before the pandemic, recent studies revealed that businesses in each state lose more than $1 billion in productivity and revenue each year as a result of breakdowns in childcare options available to working parents.

Two studies in San Diego earlier this year drew a direct line between economic growth and childcare availability. The studies’ follow-up reports stressed the critical importance of all sectors of the community stepping up and playing major roles in supporting working parents by expanding childcare options.

The studies also revealed the additional challenges first responders, healthcare, hospitality and retail workers face in seeking childcare for their children, due to often unpredictable and nonstandard work schedules.

The takeaway is clear: Inadequate childcare and the enormous emotional and financial toll it exacts on families has a huge impact on local economies.

Working parents have long been aware of the compromises faced while balancing career and childcare challenges. Now, with early care and education settings shuttered, business and philanthropic leaders also recognize that the profound lack of quality childcare makes both returning to and staying in the workforce difficult — if not impossible — for many working families.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light what these studies show, that our existing childcare system has been fragile and all too susceptible to economic injury for a long time and cannot survive the additional stressors created by the pandemic without community support.

That’s why First 5 Orange County is currently helping spearhead a major study to uncover the severity of the problem locally. Working with our community partners including the Orange County Business Council, First 5 Orange County will use the findings to chart a strategic course to expand high-quality childcare options. Childcare is an essential, foundational, necessary step to rebuilding the local economy.

Thankfully, growing numbers of local employers, government leaders, school districts, labor experts, CEOs and community organizations have already begun exploring ways to ease the childcare crisis. One resource to help families currently struggling to find childcare is this database of open childcare centers created by First 5 OC partner Early Childhood OC.

I hope these collaborative efforts will trigger a silver lining of this tragic pandemic, by a building laser-focused commitment to finally addressing the childcare crisis across Orange County and the nation.

The writer is a First 5 Orange County commissioner and seasoned early childhood educator who advocates for Orange County’s most vulnerable populations.

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