Sarah Gassen: We can't restart the economy without childcare
editor's pick

Sarah Gassen: We can't restart the economy without childcare

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Perhaps you have grown as tired of the word “crisis” as I have, especially in the past two months.

I’m not suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic is not a crisis, just that I wish we had a better collective thesaurus.

Let’s get rid of “the narrative” while we’re at it.

Oh, and using vague hipster-isms like “working in the maker/nonprofit/creative/startup/entrepreneurial/fill-in-the-blank space” can take a long walk off a short pier, too.

I could go on. Feel free to compile your own list.

This is a decadeslong conversation in my family — any snippet of jargony corporate-speak and we are all over it, laughing at how ridiculously vague and overwrought we can render the most straightforward of statements.

No opportunity can be overlooked, which is why I recently invited my parents to join me on Zoom for a “Very Important Meeting of Key Stakeholders Engaged in Facilitating Discussion to the Next Level.”

They’re doing well, thank you.

We’ve always been a word family, an inclination no doubt reinforced by growing up without a television in the house for most my childhood.

My mom worked from home as a book editor and indexer — she’s the person who read the book manuscript, often it was a medical textbook, decided what should be in the index and created it from scratch with page numbers and cross references.

Her desk and card table would be covered with precisely arranged index cards, each an entry for the index she was building. Mess with one and you’d messed with them all — I know, because I did. More than once.

I’ve been thinking about those days a lot.

Even when the indexing process moved from typed cards to computer entry the work still required concentration, time undisturbed by bored or antsy kids angling for attention.

I don’t know how my mom could have done it without us otherwise occupied in school, playing in the yard or, when we were old enough, spending long summer days at the community pool.

For weeks Arizona kids have been at home as their schools closed campuses and their classes moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents and family members became assistant teachers of necessity, helping their kids while continuing to do their own jobs, sometimes from home — if they were fortunate enough to stay employed.

So what happens now that we’re supposed to be “reopening the economy”?

Half of all childcare centers and 45% of family childcare in Tucson are closed, according to Child Care Resource & Referral.

Statewide, the figure is 73 percent, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

And those that are open, or are considering reopening, face new rules governing how many people — kids or adults — can be in a classroom at one time and more.

Parents go back to work, and kids too young to stay home alone go to ...?

Where do the kids go?

There can be no “reopening” of the local economy without safe, secure, accessible and affordable childcare so parents can go back to work, no matter where they do that labor.

This problem won’t fix itself by simply allowing parents to continue to work from home — caring for children while simultaneously performing job duties isn’t a sustainable or desirable balancing act. Families have made it work, especially in the past two months, but trying to rebuild a business by winging it isn’t going to fly.

States wiser than Arizona have long known that childcare, and specifically high-quality pre-K education, is a necessary ingredient for economic survival and growth. It’s why states like North Carolina have spent significant state dollars on early childhood education.

The business case for childcare is straightforward: A parent with reliable and safe childcare is available to work.

Some cities, such as Cincinnati, have recognized that not only does childcare help parents in the workforce, the providers themselves are a thriving group of small businesses.

And as small businesses, Tucson area childcare providers offer a widely needed service, but they also employ people, purchase supplies and pay taxes.

I’ve written before about a local group of early childhood education advocates who’ve come together to form The Preschool Promise, a network of people and organizations, including the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, dedicated to expanding high-quality preschool to as many lower-income families as want it.

I’m part of that group, so I’ve been hearing from providers and parents how imperative it is that childcare be considered an essential service as we try to restart the economy. Government at all levels has an opportunity, and I’d say obligation, to bolster the financial viability of childcare providers so families can go back to work knowing their kids are safe.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is the Star’s Opinion editor. Email her at sgassen@tucson.com and follow her on Facebook.

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Figuring out what is possible, and what is probable in our political climate, is its own challenge. Making high-quality preschool a viable option for more Pima County families is a complicated endeavor, but we can learn from other communities’ experiences how to do it.

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