Rattled child care programs poured grants into operations

Massachusetts

(Getty Images)

BOSTON (SHNS) – About $150 million in grants aimed at helping to stabilize child care infrastructure in Massachusetts has been distributed by the state’s Department of Early Education and Care so far this year, and department officials said Tuesday that the money has helped programs sustain their operations and invest in staff.

The department earlier this year used federal funds to launch its Commonwealth Cares for Children operational grants and last month conducted a survey of grant recipients. The Board of Early Education and Care, at a Tuesday meeting, reviewed data based on more than 5,000 responses.

Ninety-five percent of programs that responded to the survey by Nov. 27 reported using the funding immediately to sustain their operations, and 11 percent indicated they were in danger of closing in the next six months without continued C3 funding, Associate Commissioner Jocelyn Bowne said.

“Overall, 94 percent of programs do report that they need to continue to receive these grants over the next three months to sustain operations, so programs are not yet out of some of the operational challenges that they faced,” she said. “And when you look at enrollment numbers, I think you can see why that might be. The enrollment numbers are still down, although they have been growing over the time that the grant has been in place.”

The cost, access and workforce challenges that marked the child care sector before COVID-19 hit have been thrown into sharper relief by the pandemic, as parents’ work dynamics shifted and most care providers were shuttered last year and then faced extra costs associated with health and safety protocols as they reopened.

Enrollment has increased since July, with larger programs reporting lower enrollment, as a percentage of their capacity, than smaller ones and family child care centers. According to Bowne’s presentation, 19 percent of programs reported being unable to serve their full licensed capacity due to staffing and other constraints.

Sixty-nine percent of programs reported having open educator positions, Bowne said. More than half of centers were using the grant funds for compensation, either on an ongoing or one-time basis, and 27 percent of programs indicated future funds would be used for longer-term salary increases.

Of 1,138 centers that were planning compensation boosts, 70 percent planned to implement them by the end of the fiscal year.

In addition to other federal relief money, Massachusetts received $314 million in child care stabilization funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, according to a brief from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. States are required to spend 90 percent of the stabilization funds directly on grants to providers.

The Department of Early Education and Care partnered with Third Sector Capital Partners to create the C3 formula for its grants, MTF said, and the formula calculates grant amounts based on capacity and staff costs, with an “equity adjustment” for providers serving vulnerable children and communities.

If the rate of spending from September — when the program expended about $35 million — continues, the child care stabilization funds would be spent down by the end of February 2022, according to MTF. The foundation said other state and federal monies are available as potential funding sources, including a $100 million surplus the early education department carried over from fiscal 2021.

The MTF brief said that state officials “will need to decide if the child care stabilization program is a model worth continuing and how the state will pay for it beyond FY 2022.”

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