Many Michigan families had to stay home with their young ones during the pandemic. Now, the state is working to make child care available and accessible.
LANSING, Mich.—Kids have had it rough this last year and a half.
Older ones have seen their educational experiences take an unexpected turn to online or alternative forms of learning. Little ones, who may be too young to understand all that’s going on, have been spending more time at home and away from friends.
All of this has taken a mental toll on children. For kids already faced with disadvantages, the new normal can be debilitating.
“Those concerns that came out during the time of the pandemic, now those have to be addressed,” Michelle Driscoll, policy director for the Michigan Alliance for Families, said in an interview with The ‘Gander. “So that’s what we’re looking for for the start of the school year.”
The goal this upcoming school year is to address the issues that have cropped up in the past year and issues that have snowballed over many years. One issue is child care—or the lack thereof.
Much of Michigan is what’s called a “childcare desert.” During the pandemic, childcare options for many parents dried up, as many day cares closed their doors when parents could watch their kids while working from home.
The Michigan League for Public Policy estimates that 44% of Michiganders live in childcare deserts, meaning that there are three children needing care for every one slot that’s open.
In many Michigan families, this has forced parents to stay home with their kids. In others, it has forced other family members or friends to fill that role.
The state has a program designed to get economically disadvantaged children into child care. The Great Start Readiness Program provides those families at 250% of the federal poverty level ($66,250 annual income for a family of four) and below with free, state-funded preschool.
But up until now, only 66% of eligible children have been covered by it, the state said.
Now, the state’s historic school budget will put the state on a path for every eligible child to receive that funding or the federal substitute. The goal is that four years down the line, 22,000 more 4-year-olds will be covered, meaning the state will have the means for every eligible 4-year-old in the state.
This is part of the state’s largest-ever schools budget, which also balances funding levels for districts, puts more money into special education, and creates space for more mental and physical health services for students.
The package has been praised by Democrats and Republicans.
“This historic K-12 funding gives our schools the resources they need to make transformational improvements in learning and help Michigan students recover after more than a year of enormous challenges,” State Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) said.
“This expansion will provide broad access to critical early education programs for thousands of Michigan families,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, added.
For numerous Michigan families, funding for child care is only one half of the solution. The other solution is the supply, filling gaps in where services exist.
A newly opened childcare facility in northeast Michigan already had a waitlist of 135 people, The Alpena News reported. That’s hardly an isolated incident. Numerous other districts only have one or two options.
“That is a big barrier for our families to get back on our feet and identify employment. Their children need child care,” said Michelle LaJoie, executive director of Community Action Alger-Marquette.