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Perspective | To propel a successful post-COVID economy, we must rebuild a stronger child care system

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing what working parents have known for years — that sustainable, affordable, high-quality child care is essential to their livelihood and to their family’s health and well-being. That’s why we need a new model for child care services in our state to propel a vibrant and successful economy.

Decades of research have established that high-quality birth-through-age-8 learning environments — along with health and development on track from birth and supportive and supported families and communities — impact each child’s ability to fulfill his or her potential. In fact, the early years are so defining that by the time a child turns 8, his or her third-grade reading outcomes can predict future academic achievement and career success.

Before the crisis, businesses were uncovering the financial impact of missed work days due to child care needs, and some states and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation were advancing child care as a workforce sustainability issue. But now, the entire country is seeing firsthand the vital role that child care plays in getting our economy back on track, and how breakdowns in the system force parents, employers, and our state to question how we’ll remain at or return to work.

One-third of our nation’s workforce is made up of working parents who were already struggling to find affordable care options. In most states, including North Carolina, child care costs more than college tuition. And it’s not just the parents feeling the economic impact of these high-costs. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, states were losing more than $1 billion annually in economic activity because of breakdowns in child care.

On top of affordability, access to high-quality child care was also an issue. Before the pandemic, 99 of 100 North Carolina counties were infant and toddler child care deserts — meaning there was one space available in a high-quality facility for every three infants and toddlers. As a result of the pandemic, 34% of the state’s child care facilities are still closed with no idea if they will be able to reopen.

As the founder of a statewide mid-sized business, I’ve seen the challenges working parents face. That’s why my team and I have created family-friendly policies within our own workplace to help support our employees. But it can’t be up to parents or their employers alone. A sustainable child care system is too important. This means bringing policymakers and elected officials, owners of child care programs, and early childhood advocates to the table. We need economic and workforce development experts, our chambers, our most successful entrepreneurs, small and large businesses, faith communities, school systems, and parents to bring fresh ideas and new ways of thinking. Coming together with a common goal leads to innovative solutions, new models, and public-private partnerships.

North Carolina has been named Forbes magazine’s Best State for Business for three years in a row. We can lead the way in reimagining a resilient child care system that supports child care providers, employers, families, and our economy. Promoting the prosperity of child care not only helps our current workforce, but supports our future workforce — our youngest North Carolinians.

Sepideh Saidi

Ms. Saidi is the Founder, President and CEO of Raleigh-based SEPI Engineering and Construction.