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Pa. sets aside $655 million in federal pandemic relief money for child care programs

  • Gabriela Martínez
Meg Snead,  Acting Secretary of the  Department of Human Services, spoke in front of the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center.

 Commonwealth Media Services

Meg Snead, Acting Secretary of the Department of Human Services, spoke in front of the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center.

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania is allocating $655 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to help the child care industry recover from the pandemic.

Licensed child care providers can now apply for one-time grants to help them retain and recruit personnel, cover operational costs and pay for pandemic-related health and safety measures. Grants also can cover mental health expenses for children and staff.

Between March 2020 and the end of August 2021, 921 child care providers permanently closed in Pennsylvania and 680 new ones opened, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

According to a survey conducted by Start Strong PA, an early childhood advocacy group, there are nearly 26,000 children in Pennsylvania on waitlists for child care. The study surveyed 1,163 Pennsylvania child care programs in 63 counties.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Pennsylvania’s child care industry from increased expenses and decreased demand early in the pandemic, to the current challenges of staffing shortages and waiting lists for families that need affordable childcare to get back to work,” Meg Snead, acting secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said Monday at a news conference at the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center.

Jennifer Ross, president and CEO of the federation, said the pandemic impacted its Brenner Family Early Learning Center. When the program reopened in June, some of the teachers did not return, she said.

“We have teachers who have asked for raises that we can’t afford,” she said. “We receive desperate calls from families seeking quiet quality childcare and education. And while we have enough space for approximately 30% more children, our waitlist remains full because we don’t have enough teachers.”

Andrea Heberlein, executive director of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, said women were disproportionately affected by a lack of affordable child care, which resulted in more women leaving the workforce.

“Women are there at the lowest rate of workforce participation in the last three decades, in 30 years,” she said.

Employers believe one of the main reasons their employees left was lack of child care, according to a joint study from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission.

Child care providers with a program that has existed at least since March 2021 and with a license in good standing are eligible for a grant. Once an application is approved, eligible providers have nine months to use the funds and send back a report on how the money was used.

The application is now open. The Department of Human Services is already working through 2,000 submitted applications.

Gabriela Martínez is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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