Here’s how Colorado is spending $42 million in COVID stimulus money for early childhood

Max Gonzalez, 4, center, Gunnar Riley, 4, left, and Brooklyn Jones, 4, take turns looking through a camera as they spend part of their first week getting to know their new friends at Beck Preschool inside the Beck Recreation Center on August 29, 2017 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post)
AURORA, CO - AUGUST 29: Max Gonzalez, 4, center, Gunnar Riley, 4, left, and Brooklyn Jones, 4, take turns looking through a camera as they spend part of their first week getting to know their new friends at Beck Preschool inside the Beck Recreation Center on August 29, 2017 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post) (Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post)

Colorado is using more than half the $42 million it received in federal early childhood relief money to cushion child care providers from the coronavirus pandemic’s full financial blow, especially those who serve children from low-income families. 

While a good share of the money has already been spent, up to $9 million will be used for a program set to roll out in August that will award sustainability grants to child care providers. Another $1.4 million will be used to hire mental health specialists tasked with helping providers serve children returning to care with anxiety, trauma, or other challenges. 

Several early childhood advocates praised the state’s plan for spending the $42 million, saying it addresses the most urgent needs using a variety of strategies. But they also warned that the money — part of a $3.5 billion pot of federal COVID stimulus money for early childhood efforts nationwide — won’t be enough to sustain the state’s fragile child care industry long term.  

“My only concern is that it’s not enough money in any of the categories to accomplish what we need to accomplish,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. 

“At this point, all eyes [are] on Congress in terms of where we get the money to save the sector,” he said. 

Republican lawmakers in the Senate on Monday released details of a $1 trillion coronavirus relief package, which includes $15 billion for child care, though not the $50 billion Senate Democrats sought. 

Susan Steele, president and CEO of the Denver-based Buell Foundation, said a second federal infusion is critical to keeping child care providers open and getting families back to work. 

“If the crisis was over that would be one thing, but we are really looking forward to unknowns for the next several months,” she said.

(The Buell Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Here’s a rough breakdown of how the state spent, or will spend, the $42 million. 

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$21 million — Child care subsidy program for low-income families

The state dedicated the largest share of federal early childhood relief money to the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which helps low-income Colorado parents pay for child care. About $11.5 million went to child care providers who accept subsidies and had to shut their doors temporarily last spring, or had children who exceeded the normally allowed number of absences in March, April, May, and June. 

Although it varies by county, a child on subsidies normally can miss only one to three days a month. Any more than that, and the provider won’t get a subsidy payment for those days. But early in the pandemic, many providers shut down on the advice of local health officials or because schools closed, and even those who stayed open saw enrollment drop precipitously because parents kept their children home. The continued subsidy payments helped providers pay their staff and cover other costs.

State officials earmarked another $4.2 million to pay open providers for five absences per month through July and August. While some counties have returned to their pre-coronavirus absence rules, others are still reimbursing for more absences than they normally would.

The state spent the last chunk of money earmarked for the subsidy program — $5.4 million — to reduce monthly parent co-pays. On average, 28,000 Colorado children receive subsidized care each year.

Previously, parents had to spend 14% of their gross monthly income on child care co-pays before the subsidies kicked in. Now, co-pays can’t exceed 7% of a family’s gross monthly income. That rule extends through next June, and state officials said they’re working to make the changes permanent.

Pamela Harris, president and CEO of the Denver-based Mile High Early Learning network of centers, said she appreciated the state’s focus on the child care subsidy program in divvying up relief money.

“It’s really getting at families who are working and who don’t have a lot of other resources for child care,” she said.  

$10.4 million — Emergency child care for essential workers

This money, along with smaller amounts from foundations and other groups, covered the cost of child care for essential workers for two months early in the pandemic. All told, 518 providers cared for 5,240 children through the program, which ran from late March to late May. Participating parents, including those in health care and other frontline jobs, were not charged for child care during that period.

$9 million — Sustainability grants for child care providers

Providers will be eligible for initial grants of $1,000 to $3,000 depending on their enrollment capacity. State officials are still hammering out the details of the program, but expect to start distributing money to providers in late August or early September. They said the first round of awards is meant to help a broad swath of providers, while a second round will focus on certain high-priority providers. 

$1.4 million — Early childhood mental health

This money will pay for 14 early childhood mental health specialists — a cadre of consultants who will work with providers statewide to help children, families, or staff members cope with stress from the pandemic. State officials said the new specialists, who will join 34 others currently employed by the state, will start at the end of August. 

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Many experts expect that children returning to care may act out because of anxiety or trauma they experienced in recent months. In addition,  providers — some of whom fear financial ruin or worry about getting sick — may need extra mental health support themselves.

Steele, who like Harris is a co-chair of Colorado’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission, called the state’s spending on mental health “forward-thinking,” saying it’s an acknowledgment of the needs providers have beyond just keeping their doors open. 

$315,000 — Child Care Resource and Referral Network

This money covered extra staff time needed for regional child care referral organizations to match the children of essential workers to providers when emergency child care was offered. 

$235,000 — Cleaning supplies and masks for early childhood providers

This money went to a public-private effort to deliver bleach, hand soap, gloves and other items to child care providers stymied by local shortages of cleaning supplies. Leaders of the effort, called the Keep the Lights On fund, pooled state money with philanthropic dollars to buy and ship supplies to providers all over Colorado, with some rural areas getting first priority. 

Having such supplies can ease the minds of employees, Harris said. “In terms of staff morale, it’s significant to feel like you have the things you need to stay safe.” 

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