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Mark Wilson, David Lawrence: A too-hidden key to a more rapid recovery

If we want people back to work quickly after COVID-19, child care must become a priority now.

Not one of us has lived in times like these.

The brightest minds in Florida’s private sector are working to ensure the supply chain stays strong and that health care resources are readily available for those who need them. Grocery store team members, restaurant owners and staff, and utility workers are keeping essential services running.

One important set of small businesses — child care and early learning providers — enables all this. That same industry will speed up our economic recovery when we can get back to work.

The COVID-19 pandemic already has underscored the value of child care providers. Gov. Ron DeSantis deemed them essential personnel for their role in caring for the children of our first responders battling the coronavirus.

And, yet, we are facing a child care crisis in Florida.

Sixty percent of child care providers in Florida have at least temporarily closed their doors, and more continue to close. The National Association for the Education of Young Children reports that perhaps a quarter of providers won’t be able to survive a closing of more than two weeks. We are risking a huge loss of essential small businesses.

Imagine being ready to return to work. We will call our child care provider and discover it out of business. We will frantically call other providers. Those still open may well already be at capacity. Who will care for our children when we return to work? In the months it takes for alternative providers to start new businesses to meet the need, the economy would sputter. And, so, can we return to work?

There are about 1.5 million children under age 6 living in Florida. Two-thirds of those children live in homes with either a single working-outside-the-home parent or two working parents.

This isn’t only just about parents having a safe place for their children to go while they work; this is about the future of Florida. Eighty-five percent of brain growth occurs by the time a child is 3, and high-quality early childhood education, care and development, particularly from birth to age 8, is essential for developing both cognitive and noncognitive skills.

Child care providers prepare — as do parents — our youngest students for future success, teaching vital skills such as self-discipline, persistence and cooperation — all skills are essential to a quality workforce.

If we fail to get a good start with early learning, we hurt ourselves decades down the road. High-quality child care helps us meet the goals for our future prosperity set forth in the Florida Chamber’s 2030 Blueprint. Those begin with 100% kindergarten readiness and 100% of our third graders reading at grade-level.

So, what can we do to ensure we are able to jump-start the economy when it is safe to do so?

Good public policy will help. We must assess our priorities, acknowledging the valuable role child care plays in Florida’s economy. Public dollars will be needed to help stabilize child care businesses so they can reopen and to support the early childhood workforce so they can return to their jobs as teachers and caregivers.

Employers have a role to play, too. When you are ready to get back to work (this time without young children in the videoconference background), consider developing or strengthening further your family-friendly policies. Are you able to voluntarily offer child care subsidies or paid family leave? Can you connect with a local child care center to offer support or arrange for care for your employees’ children? Sometimes all that is needed is a conversation with your employees on what they need from you.

It might be simpler than you expect.

This is not about bureaucracy or government intervention, but rather about business leaders making thoughtful and wise decisions for their own enterprises and the people who work for them.

We should not forego this chance to improve an industry essential to Florida’s competitiveness. Let us be proactive as we know securing Florida’s future depends on it. May we enjoy the wisdom of our foresight in the years to come.

___

Mark Wilson is president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce; David Lawrence Jr. is the chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida and retired publisher of the Miami Herald.

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