Hansen: Nebraskans aid child care providers

The children at Julie Cobaugh’s child care in Ogallala celebrate the bottle of hand sanitizer donated by the local pharmacy, which gave a similar bottle to all 16 area child care providers.

It seems like such a small thing, this 6-ounce bottle of alcohol and aloe vera they would normally mindlessly grab for $2 at the grocery store.

But these are not normal times, and the 16 Ogallala-area child care providers who recently pulled up to the U-Save pharmacy drive-thru window and drove off with a small bottle of free hand sanitizer didn’t consider it a small thing.

Afterward, they sent texts, Facebook messages, and handwritten notes to Brian and Mary Wilson, the pharmacy’s owners.

All of them said the same thing: Thank you so much.

“I think child care providers are easily overlooked in this time. They are struggling,” said Mary Wilson, also the Keith County economic development director. “We could help with one thing. So we did.”

Child care providers are struggling, like so many Nebraskans are right now. Many child care centers and in-home providers operated on a shoestring budget long before we learned the word “coronavirus.”

The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, a coalition of state leaders, recently estimated that $912 million in government and private money is needed annually to educate and care for our state’s young children. Currently, the child care system survives on half that much.

Since the COVID-19 crisis, Nebraska’s child care providers have watched pay disappear as the 10-person gathering limit shrank available slots and as parents chose to keep children at home.

Many providers are scared that staying open is unsafe, according to a recent Buffett Early Childhood Institute survey. Many also say their businesses, if shuttered, can only survive for a few weeks.

“Basically, we feel guilty if we are open. And we feel awful if we are closed,” said Alicia Melo, a Geneva child care owner and one of hundreds of Nebraska providers to temporarily close.

This is grim news, as most COVID-19 news is. But, through the clouds, you can see slivers of sunshine.

In Dakota County, one of the hardest-hit spots in the state, farmer Taylor Nelson teamed up with the Nebraska Ethanol Board to get hand sanitizer to child care providers running desperately low. Nelson and team got a whopping 85 gallons of hand sanitizer into the hands of area child care providers, including many in South Sioux City.

In Omaha, the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative distributed a care basket of key supplies — toilet paper, paper towels, gloves, and bleach—to nearly 100 child care providers struggling to buy supplies.

In Red Cloud, the Nebraska Community Foundation is advising that town’s non-profit child care.

Alongside those local efforts, several statewide programs aim to help child care providers.

The federal government has pledged $20 million in stimulus money for Nebraska’s child care system. Gov. Pete Ricketts signed an executive order allowing providers to receive the regular subsidy payments for children of low income. These payments will preserve the child’s spot at child care, even if the child currently isn’t attending. They provide some stability to many providers’ perilous cash flow.

A coalition of state agencies and organizations, led by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, just launched Nebraska’s first statewide child care referral website at nechildcarereferral.org. The current site, meant to help emergency workers connect with open child cares, will grow into a valuable tool for parents searching for nearby quality child care.

Nebraska has needed such a website for decades. The coalition made it reality in a month.

This same coalition has given more than 700 Nebraska child care providers $1,000 apiece in emergency funding.

The most encouraging silver lining: Increasingly, Nebraskans see child care providers as essential workers. Essential to our economy. Essential to our workforce. Essential to our future.

Mary Wilson, Keith County development director, recently participated in a conference call of area child care providers. She heard them talk about the financial strain, health concerns, how they couldn’t get supplies.

In her position, she knows how crucial child care is to a small town economy. As a mom, she relies on her family’s child care provider, Sally Pankonin.

“A good word for Sally is, ‘amazing,’” Wilson says. “Now working from home with two little girls…I don’t know how (providers) do it all day, every day.”

Mary’s pharmacist husband, Brian, was making hand sanitizer to sell. She had an idea: Free hand sanitizer for child care providers.

No, this act will not fully fund Nebraska’s child care system, or end the COVID-19 crisis.

But yes, it still mattered, says Heather Gill, who coaches western Nebraska child care providers. She connected Mary and Brian Wilson to the 16 area providers.

All 16 showed up to U-Save pharmacy, thankful for the small bottle of hand sanitizer and the small act of Nebraska kindness.

“It’s more about someone saying, ‘We hear you,’” Gill says. “‘We are listening. We know you are important.’”

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of early childhood in Nebraska.

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