Opening up child care, camps helps parents returning to work, but risks remain

A day care center in Austin. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

Gov. Greg Abbott is immediately allowing all child care services to open for children of all workers, lifting a previous order limiting care to children of essential workers.

The decision came Monday as Abbott announced his next wave of reopenings to restart Texas' economy during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing businesses across Texas to ramp up operations and bring their workers back. He said summer camps, scouting camps, 4H camps and youth programs such as Little League will be able to open on May 31.

And school districts may offer in-person summer school programs as soon as June 1 as long as they follow “safe distancing practices as well as all other health protocols,” he said. (The Texas Education Agency has issued further guidance for school districts on safe, in-person summer school, including keeping groups to 11 or smaller).

Abbott is powering up the economy against the backdrop of a steady increase in the number of coronavirus cases and test numbers that are falling short of state recommendations.

Advocates and parents have been clamoring for weeks that they need access to child care to be able to head back to work, especially with school buildings closed statewide through the end of the school year.

But when Abbott announced malls, restaurants and movie theaters could open earlier this month, he refused to open child care centers to anyone other than essential workers such as nurses and grocery store clerks. That left some retail and restaurant workers facing a state-caused conundrum, called back to work without options for child care.

The Texas Workforce Commission subsequently issued a policy change allowing parents to remain on unemployment benefits if they were called back to work but failed to find child care. And employees of some businesses may be eligible for paid leave under a new federal policy that went into effect in April.

But that didn't help parents without work who don't qualify for unemployment benefits but need child care for young children.

Meanwhile, child care centers have struggled to stay open, with the limitations on the children they could take in and the increased safety requirements. As of Monday, 10,925 licensed child care operations are open, meaning 37% have closed since February.

"If the goal is to ensure that parents have the child care they need in order to go to work, state leaders will also need to use federal dollars to provide direct funding to child care providers to help them financially survive the pandemic," said David Feigen, policy associate at advocacy group Texans Care for Children.

"Child care providers will face increased expenses but they won’t be able to serve the typical number of children — and generate their typical tuition revenue — as they limit enrollment to meet new safety requirements, equip staff with protective gear, and increase spending on sanitation."

And even as Abbott allows more and more businesses to open, parents have expressed concern about sending their children out and potentially exposing them to the coronavirus. As of last Friday, 53 licensed child care centers had notified the state of confirmed COVID-19 cases: 36 caregivers and 23 children, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Child care centers with positive cases must report them to the state and to their local health departments. They are required to follow guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including closing off areas used by the person who is sick, cleaning and disinfecting the facility and isolating the sick person.