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New Mexico subsidies keep child care afloat despite virus

September 24, 2020 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s new child care agency has been regularly tweaking policies in an effort to keep the fragile industry afloat while increasing access, and providers say the work is paying off for them and parents.

The Early Childhood Education and Care Department began waiving child care co-payments months ago to help low-income families find quality care. This week, the agency expanded eligibility for subsidies to groups left behind under previous rules, such as remote workers and graduate students.

“Maybe it’ll bring somebody that was on the borderline ’like hey I want to go back for my master’s and do that.′ And now it will give them that opportunity to better themselves,” said Brandon Baca, district manager of Learning Care Group, which operates 14 La Petite Academy child care centers in New Mexico.

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Baca said he knows of at least one family in that position. State officials have heard from many more.

“Members of our team have personally heard stories from New Mexicans who didn’t previously qualify for child care assistance, and those stories motivated our efforts to update the regulations and extend support to more families,” agency spokesman Matt Bieber said.

Sarah Rendon operates an at-home daycare center called We Care. When COVID-19 hit, she went from six full-time clients to just two.

While Rendon accepts only clients who pay full fees, she said she and the working families that rely on her daycare have benefited from the state’s response to the pandemic. Rendon said she was able to receive monthly payments from the state that were meant to help child care workers during the pandemic.

That extra money likely saved her from defaulting on her mortgage or car payment.

“I would have used all my savings, which isn’t a lot,” said Rendon, 65, a former state worker who has an auto-immune disease that puts her at risk for complications of COVID-19.

With the establishment of the new department, supporters say child care issues have been elevated and communication across the child care industry has improved, even amid the chaos of the pandemic, Baca said. He participates each Tuesday in a call between child care providers and department Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky, who takes questions on fluctuating financial and health safety rules.

“We’re going straight to the source that’s helping these rules change,” he said.

Baca oversaw furloughs at the start of the pandemic as clients evaporated as workers went home.

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He said he’s back to his original 250-person workforce. But he needs to hire more employees because providers are now required under the state’s public health order to have lower ratios of children to staff members.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.