Schools across the U.S. are closed because of the coronavirus and unlikely to reopen safely anytime soon. Parents are exhausted from constant, round-the-clock care while trying to work from home, and kids themselves are slipping behind academically. The potential to inflict lasting damage to the economy is enormous, and it’s getting short shrift in the recovery plans coming out of Washington. We are letting the whole child care system erode in such a way that it’s not going to be there for us when we are fully ready to go back to work.

We are seeing child care centers that can’t stay in business. They can’t figure out how to reopen. They can’t keep their employees on staff. They’re letting people go. Even the other types of care that people have relied on, like grandparents, involve making some really difficult choices.

You have to decide, are you going to quarantine so that you’re not exposing those grandparents, or are you going to risk exposing the grandparents? Grandparents want to see their grandchildren. What will happen to the economy if we lose all our child care and our schools? That would be way worse than losing our airlines, and yet less money was given to the entire child care sector than we gave to one single airline, Delta.

Child care is one of those issues where we still think it’s a personal problem, not a social issue. The pandemic has revealed that it is a social issue. Child care is not a personal issue. It’s not a women’s issue; it’s an economic issue. It’s an economic issue because we need to invest in the children. Early childhood education is one of the most effective investments a taxpayer could ever make. Every dollar we put into it comes back to us over in terms of higher earnings — which means that they pay for higher future taxes — and fewer negative social effects. Less likely to engage in crime, less likely to have learning disabilities.

Investing in children is worth it. Leaving an entire generation of children behind is not a good idea. We really need to say this is our first priority, and hope everybody blows up the phones of their members of Congress and says, “If this is not the most important issue in your next stimulus bill, then your priorities are out of whack.”

The solution has got to be government spending on child care. It’s going to have to be government encouraging and rewarding businesses that provide employees with the flexibility they need in order to balance work and child care.

The policymakers debating legislation need to realize that caregiving is an essential part of our economy. And it’s an investment that they are going to see benefits from in terms of economic growth. The same folks who are happy to cut corporate taxes need to invest in the next generation so that the current generation can do their work and the next generation is prepared to do it even better.

Ramona Sanders lives in Harrisonburg.

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