The little girl’s excited voice burst into the phone call.
Like many other California parents working from home to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic, the single mother on the other end of the call took a moment to patiently let her daughter know she had work to do.
“Sorry. Hold on,” she said to the others on the line. After quietly whispering to her child, she returned with a sigh and shared a common sentiment. “The days and weeks are just blurring together.”
While she may share their challenges, this mom’s job is unlike most other parents in California as she works the phone from home on behalf of California’s children and their families. She is Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey).
On the other end of the line were members of First 5 LA’s Policy and Advocacy team participating in a first-ever “virtual” Advocacy Day on April 21 in conjunction with the First 5 Association of California.
Since safer-at-home guidelines were instituted in March to flatten the coronavirus curve, First 5 LA has adapted its policy and advocacy efforts by connecting to county and state government officials through email, phone calls and virtual online meetings to help influence state and county response to COVID-19. For this year’s Advocacy Day, First 5 LA and other First 5’s statewide replaced the traditional in-person meetings with state lawmakers in Sacramento with Zoom meetings and phone calls.
It was in these “virtual meetings” where First 5 LA’s policy and advocacy team shared how the agency is supporting children and families through the COVID-19 crisis and urged lawmakers to continue to support critical early childhood programs — some key to the economy’s recovery — as they debate the state budget in the shadow of a potential recession.
Among the First 5 LA team’s key messages: if a child’s parents or grandparents who care for them are impacted by COVID-19, that child’s life can be turned sideways. So continued funding and legislation are needed for essential programs that support young children and their families. And if California’s economy is going to recover from this crisis, child care will be essential for parents to return to work.
“We’re lifting all of these issues up — not just child care but family supports— lifting up what kids need during this time,” First 5 LA Vice President of Policy and Strategy Kim Pattillo Brownson told Burke on the call. “It’s important to see children are included in the recovery package and not a second thought.”
First 5 LA’s team met with leading early childhood champions in Sacramento, including Burke, Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).
In addition to Pattillo Brownson, First 5 LA’s Advocacy Day team included Executive Director Kim Belshé, Commissioner Romalis Taylor, Public Policy and Government Affairs Director Peter Barth, Senior Government Affairs Strategist Jamie Zamora, Senior Policy Strategist Charna Widby, Senior Policy Strategist Ofelia Medina, Government Affairs Strategist Anais Duran and Early Care and Education (ECE) Director Becca Patton.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE... AND WHAT IS NEEDED
Early Care and Education
To share how the agency is supporting children and families during the COVID-19 crisis, Patton used the lawmaker meetings to describe First 5 LA’s involvement in the work of the Los Angeles Early Care and Education COVID-19 Response Team. The countywide team consists of the municipal, county, early care and education, philanthropic, and resource and referral agencies.
Among the team’s accomplishments is the launch of enhanced resource and referral services to ensure that essential workers have access to child care. Additionally, the team has launched a centralized website with resources and guidance for parents/guardians and providers at www.lacoe.edu/childcare.
“We also set up a distribution process through resource and referral agencies for anything child care providers could need to continue to operate safely — masks, gloves, diapers, and other supplies,” Patton said in the meeting with Burke. “We also meet bi-weekly and host call-ins for providers.”
But more can be done, the First 5 LA team noted. And that’s where lawmakers can step in.
Prior to COVID-19, 60,000 families were already on a child care waitlist. With centers closing and the need to serve the essential workforce increasing, providers cannot provide added child care services without additional funding.
In the meeting with Burke, Medina pointed out that while the $100 million allocated to child care by Gov. Newsom on April 10 in response to the pandemic was greatly needed, only half of that was allocated to cover child care for essential workers. And it is not enough.
“$50 million only covers 20,000 families for two months. Prior to the pandemic, we had 60,000 workers on the waitlist,” Medina told Burke.
First 5 LA is asking Burke and other lawmakers to support the release of federal Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funds and repurpose already appropriated state one-time child care funds to expand child care access to essential workers. California is expected to receive $339 million in CCDBG funding, with $133 million for L.A. County, and has one-time remaining funds allocated in the 2019-2020 budget which can be repurposed for emergency child care.
Child care providers are also struggling with a lack of stability, Medina noted in a virtual Zoom call with Senator Durazo.
“A number of providers were able to close for their own safety,” Medina said. “The hold harmless provision means they continue to receive funds but only for 30 days. And as for the federal stimulus package, funding has run out — a lot of providers were not able to get those funds.”
Even on a virtual Zoom call, it was easy to see Durazo’s eyebrows rise.
“Did small business loans help providers? How much were they able to benefit?” Durazo asked.
“A very minimal number of our providers were able to apply,” responded Medina.
First 5 LA is asking Durazo and other lawmakers to extend the hold harmless provision provided under Senate Bill (SB) 117 until the end of COVID-19 pandemic, which would waive reporting and attendance requirements for child care programs. The extension of the hold harmless provision would add stability to the child care system by ensuring child care providers can plan for and endure the uncertainty that COVID-19 will continue to bring.
Ensuring that early care and education programs do not fall under the budget axe similar to the Great Recession of 2008 was another critical point raised during the meetings. In 2008, Medina noted, child care and preschool programs were cut by $1 billion, decreasing the total state child care budget by one third.
As a result of these cuts, California lost roughly 110,000 child care seats, or 25 percent, between 2008 and 2013.
Accordingly, First 5 LA is asking for increased funding for ECE programs as the governor and Legislature work to develop a work-load budget that acknowledges that child care will continue to be an essential service through the pandemic, as well as the economic recovery to come.
“As workers go back to their jobs, they are going to need child care. It’s essential to keep the economy going,” Medina said. “One of the things that we hear from the providers is that they are ready to help but they need funding to do it.”
After his meeting with First 5 LA, Assembly Speaker Rendon expressed his continued support for child care.
“I have always said that early childhood education and child care are the foundation of everything we hope to accomplish in California,” Rendon said in a statement. “That has never been more clear than it is now, when essential workers need to have a safe and nurturing place for their children so that they can do the work that will get California through the COVID crisis and on the road to economic recovery.”
Home Visiting and Telehealth
When it comes to COVID-19’s impact on the health of families, First 5 LA emphasized the importance of two areas: home visiting and telehealth.
“We’ve been working closely with our home visitors,” Widby told Durazo. “Home visitors are critical during this time.”
Family supports such as home visiting are important, now more than ever, as families who already face complex needs have been thrust into chaos and greater social isolation due to COVID-19. Home visitors are a critical link of support for families who are facing a variety of challenges that will be exacerbated by this crisis.
Home visiting programs funded by First 5 LA, such as Welcome Baby and Select Home Visiting programs,have begun pivoting to accommodate new ways of reaching families, including expanding virtual home visits and delivering much-needed diapers and other supplies.
First 5 LA is asking Durazo and other lawmakers to urge the Newsom Administration to provide emergency flexibility to use funds to train home visitors to deliver services through technology and provide tangible needs for families including technology, formula, diapers, and more; allow virtual visits to be considered home visits through the end of the calendar year; and maintain all funding for staffing levels of home visiting programs.
Telehealth limits physical interactions between patient and provider, protecting both from unknowingly spreading or contracting the COVID-19 virus. Telehealth also allows families the opportunity to receive mental health supports and for providers to screen a patient for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as traumatic experiences, such as a family member getting sick or losing their job due to COVID-19, can damage optimal brain development during a crucial period for growth.
“Telehealth has been very quickly adopted in most health care settings because of the crisis,” Widby said to Durazo. “Telehealth allows families to receive specialty health supports, which is especially important during this time as families experience isolation and other stressors. We ask that you continue to support telehealth after the crisis.”
Jennifer Richard, Durazo’s chief of staff, asked: “Why would there be a greater need for telehealth after the crisis than now?”
“Our future is uncertain,” Widby answered. “There may be families that are still unemployed and there will be families that have been isolated and need supports to get back online as well as families that are still unemployed and need continued supports.”
In the meeting with Burke, First 5 LA Commissioner Romalis Taylor also emphasized the importance of telehealth and home visiting.
“I want to point out that home visiting and telehealth are going to reach communities that are hard to reach, that may have problems with transportation — and may not get the services they need during this crisis,” Taylor told Burke. “It’s very important that we continue telehealth. We need to look at it as we move forward. We have 30 percent of coronavirus deaths among Latinos. It’s very important that we find help for these communities.”
Burke said that the coronavirus had already begun to change some minds in the state capitol about the digital divide surrounding telehealth.
“We started a telehealth conversation today on a caucus call,” Burke said. “A lot of people who were not advocates for it have had a change of heart. I think we’re having a conversation about how to expand it. We realize that there is a digital divide.”
A TRUSTED RESOURCE
After the First 5 LA team made its asks, the first-ever Virtual Advocacy Day ended with lawmakers expressing their gratitude for the agency’s work and for being a trusted resource on early childhood issues.
“I appreciate very much all of your work,” Durazo said. “I was at a food distribution center this morning and I did an interview. They asked me what was needed. I said, ‘Well, child care providers who don’t have diapers, don’t have cleaning supplies, we’ve got to do something about this.’Your examples stuck with me.”
Then Durazo made an ask of her own to First 5 LA.
“You mentioned the Women’s Caucus. We will be meeting with the governor. Is there a question in particular I should ask?” Durazo said to Pattillo Brownson. “We’ve said child care is a priority. I would ask you to help us make the best presentation to the governor.”
Pattillo Brownson nodded. “We will.”
After all, life is about showing up and following up, notes First 5 LA Executive Director Kim Belshé. Whether it’s in person or virtually.
“There’s a saying that 80 percent of life is showing up,” said Belshé, who outlined First 5 LA’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic on the agency’s website. “I’m so proud of our Policy team, which worked collaboratively with our Programs team, Commissioners, Sacramento advocates, and First 5 Association partners, to ensure that First 5 LA showed up for First 5’s annual Advocacy Day.
“Virtual or in person, what matters is being present, engaging decision-makers, advocating for equitable policies that prioritize young children in the COVID-19 context and beyond, and bringing the voice of parents and providers directly to decision-makers. What’s the other 20 percent of life about? Following up. We’ve got work to do and I have confidence in our team to continue to be a strong voice for our children — we will show up, and we will follow up. For the kids. All kids.”