More than $157 million in federal pandemic relief funds will be distributed to more than 1,000 child care and early learning providers in New Mexico, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department announced Wednesday.

Kids Campus at Santa Fe Community College, one of the area’s largest child care providers, will receive $400,000 in grant funding over the next six months. It’s much needed, said child care provider Deyanira Contreras, director of the early childhood education center at Kids Campus.

“COVID-19 has led to a constant state of destabilization in child care,” she said in a recent interview, adding the center has plans to potentially raise wages, recruit more qualified staff, provide more professional development and have proper coverage when employees miss work.

The center is fully staffed, Contreras said, but she noted that during the pandemic some employees had to leave to take care of their families.

The federal money comes via the American Rescue Plan and represents nearly one-third of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department’s annual budget.

“This is a system that … is truly sort of starved for funding,” Growing Up New Mexico policy and engagement Vice President Kate Noble, who is also president of the Santa Fe Public Schools board, said in a recent interview.

Individual uses for the money will likely vary, Noble said, adding much of it might be used on staff retention and paying off debts accumulated by child care centers during the pandemic.

In New Mexico, more than half of grant recipients were child care centers. Other recipients were at-home and family home care providers, some of which have temporarily closed because of the pandemic.

The funding behind the grants comes from the American Rescue Plan — the largest one-time child care investment in U.S. history at $39 billion, mostly allocated to stabilization grants.

Over the summer, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department used other federal pandemic relief money to expand child care assistance eligibility, and now a family of four making up to $93,000 can get help paying for child care at day cares with state subsidies.

The funding behind the expansion, and for the grants, is not sustaining; Congress is considering a separate budget plan that would allot

$450 billion toward free preschool programs and child care costs over 10 years.

Advocates for that portion of the spending package hope long-term funds could also be used to boost lagging wages for child care workers.

Contreras said the current funding landscape is difficult for day care and early learning providers. But she said families might have it hardest, as some continue to struggle locating care amid a small number of available spots in the Santa Fe area.

She said that at Kids Campus, which accepts children from ages 2 months to 5 years, the waitlist for infant care is the longest. The center can’t use the grant funds to expand its capacity, Contreras said, adding it would need more classrooms and increased staffing to meet the low child-teacher ratio required for infants.

“We don’t have lots of classrooms to take care of all children for our community,” she said. “The waitlists are very, very long. We know the need in our community for children younger than 3. It’s just challenging that we don’t have enough classrooms.”

Savanh Denton, a mother of two in Santa Fe, said she would agree. Before the pandemic, she said, she was able to pay higher rates for child care. But as the pandemic lingered, she lost her job.

She said she is relieved her daughter is now old enough for kindergarten in the public school system — and said she had to rush to toilet train her 3-year-old to ensure he was eligible for the free preschool program at Kids Campus.

If he were younger, she said, she might have had to wait months for care while she and her husband worked to recuperate from her layoff.

When Annie Brethour’s son was 6 weeks old, she put him on a waitlist with hopes of finding care for him by the time he was 3 or 4 months old. That was July 2020, and their name didn’t rise to the top of a waitlist until February, when they found a day care center with an open spot for $1,500 a month.

“There are not a lot of people who need child care and can afford that,” Brethour said, and short hours at the day care meant she and her husband had to “flex” their work schedules to keep up.

Brethour said the facility was not a good fit and later significantly raised its prices. The family is moving to Rio Rancho, in part out of hope there will be a better variety of care options there.

As a record amount of federal funding is pumped into child care systems nationwide, Brethour said she hopes affordability and wages become a main focus.

“I would hope that day care centers find ways to certainly pay their staff and teachers a living wage because it’s obscene how poorly they’re paid,” she said. “It’s also really hard for parents to square [working] to pay for someone to watch your kids. It’s kind of an unfortunate cycle.”

(1) comment

Mark Ortiz

Where are all the anti-choice crowd, or sorry, pro-life crowd jumping for joy about this in the SFNM comment section? This is amazing! My bad, that crowd sadly focuses their efforts for children's "rights" in the womb. Funny ideology, they take away a woman's reproductive/health rights, if they are "too poor" to take care of their child, they are condemned and shammed for getting pregnant in the first place, and then force them to struggle and live in squalor. Not one republican voted for the American Rescue Plan. The children this money is saving aren't republican or democrat. This money is helping families regardless of party affiliation.

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