Child care access is key to pandemic recovery for California’s children, working families

Liv Ames for EdSource

Children ride tricycles at a child care center run by the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in 2015.

This past March was the two-year anniversary of unprecedented and necessary actions to stop the spread of Covid-19. Now, as we reflect on how to live with the virus and move on, it’s time to focus on recovery, especially for those most affected by the pandemic.

For California’s children, families, and our state’s economy, that recovery absolutely depends on the availability of child care.

Life with masks, social distancing and noses is all our young children have known. Social interaction and play – which are critical to child development – were largely limited throughout the pandemic, especially during Covid eruptions. We now see how isolation and stress have contributed to developmental setbacks and behavioral challenges.

When families suffer, children suffer, and the pandemic has inflicted great hardship on our working families. It has also exacerbated existing challenges, such as finding affordable, accessible childcare. The average California family will have to spend more than 40% of their income (or more than $ 28,000 a year) to pay for the care of two children, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Access to childcare affects our labor market and economy. In a national survey, 71% of parents reported that problems finding childcare affect their ability to work. In addition, 2.3 million women left the workforce during the first year of the pandemic, often caring for children, which dealt a huge blow to women’s progress in the workplace.

Child development and care experts, parent groups, and economic development agencies all agree: California needs more affordable child care options. That’s why I wrote Senate Bill 976 to create the state’s first universal preschool program for all 3- and 4-year-olds. It will expand access to childcare and empower parents to choose the best care options that meet their child’s needs and their own work schedules, as well as their cultural and community preferences.

Last year, the governor signed SB 130, which authorized universal transition nursery school – or TC – at public schools. TK is free for all families with a 4-year-old regardless of income level. But what happens to the children who are not developmentally ready to enter an academic school-based environment at the age of 4? Or families with full-time working parents, for whom a half-day TK program is not compatible with childcare needs?

SB 976 will build on universal TK by establishing universal nursery school to allow children and families to continue in community-based programs that meet their unique and changing needs. In addition to meeting families where they are, it is more economical: community care providers can provide full-time, full-time care at a lower cost than the cost of part-time, part-time care at public schools.

There is funding in the state budget 2022-23 to start planning for a deployment of universal kindergarten, which will only start with low-income children. Additional federal money is expected that will support eventual expansion to all children ages 3 and 4.

The bill will also help keep our insecure childcare system going. Currently, 4-year-olds and their families help child care providers subsidize the cost of the most expensive children to care for: babies and toddlers. Without 4-year-olds in community-based childcare facilities, the cost of infant and toddler care will skyrocket, and many providers may even close.

During his tenure, Governor Gavin Newsom advocated extensive access to child care, paid family leave, developmental research, basic and essential needs, and more.

And yet childcare still remains out of reach for far too many. California’s working families need more early learning and care opportunities across all institutions — school campuses, community-based programs, and family care homes — to access them. And our childminders, who are already thinly stretched, have to keep the carpet under their feet.

There is no more critical time than now to invest in our young children and the people who cherish them.


Connie LeyvaD-Chino, is a member of the California State Senate and Chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

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