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Santa Rosa approves $2 million child care program with federal funding

Santa Rosa will use $2 million in federal coronavirus aid funds to create a new child care program, seeking to bolster an overwhelmed network of providers that has been undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to create a pilot program for child care providers and authorized deals with two established expert groups — First 5 Sonoma County and the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County — which together will receive up to $600,000 combined in the program’s initial investment.

First 5 will administer a $500,000 grant program for Santa Rosa child care facilities, and 4Cs will receive $100,000 to double its annual offering of training courses for future providers as well as help with licensing and start-up costs, according to city documents.

The remaining $1.4 million in funding, all of which the city received from the CARES Act, will be used to expand the program as needed. Potential projects could include subsidizing the inclusion of new child care centers in future housing projects or rehabilitating existing properties to allow for new child care sites.

The idea arose from a two-person council group including Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming and Councilman John Sawyer, who had been asked to find ways to help the local community recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

The passage of the program was especially significant for Fleming, who championed child care as a priority before her election in 2018. The vice mayor, a licensed clinical social worker and the only mother on the council, characterized the city’s child care effort as a win for families, kids and businesses, especially smaller women-owned child care operations which dominate the field.

“I’m really beside myself to see it come forward,” Fleming said.

The funding could prove critical for local providers dealing with the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on social gathering imposed to curb the spread of the virus.

The local child care system was strained before the pandemic — the October 2017 wildfires closed more than a dozen licensed programs — and it has been even harder hit since March. Nearly 250 child care centers, including 109 in Santa Rosa are estimated to have closed since then, while about 24 have newly opened, according to a city analysis.

The roughly 390 child care sites in Sonoma County and 190 in Santa Rosa that remain open have had to cut their capacity by more than half.

About 7,250 of 12,500 slots for kids in local child care centers have been lost — at least temporarily — due to the pandemic, according to city data. And continuing to operate has risks of its own: Dozens of people were infected at 13 preschool and home-based child care centers in early September.

One longtime local provider, Amy McIntyre of Childkind Preschool in Santa Rosa, related that the remaining local providers were struggling and seemed to be constantly questioning whether they could stay in business.

“Child care is at deep risk of losing thousands of slots,” McIntyre said, noting that her own business has had its capacity cut from 24 to 12 kids. “Working at 50% capacity does not pay the bills, and it’s been very, very challenging to stay open.”

City officials also noted the benefits observed with child care and early childhood education investment, including a correlation between the availability of those services and increased tax revenue, better health and lower crime. The program’s supporters include the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, which thanked the city for prioritizing child care.

“It is crucial that we acknowledge how fragile this small business sector is and the communitywide impact of a breakdown of this sector,” said Ananda Sweet, the chamber’s vice president of public policy and workforce development.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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