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Laurie Lachance is president of Thomas College, a member of ReadyNation, former chair of Educare Central Maine, former state economist, and served as co-chair of Gov. Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee.

One of the pandemic’s many lessons is that accessible, affordable, high-quality child care is critically important — especially to Maine’s business community.

The widespread shutdowns last spring halted or greatly limited the work of businesses all across our state. But even when most businesses reopened, many employees could not return to work or return full time. With their children’s child care centers and schools closed or with limited hours of operation, many parents had to stay home and care for their kids.

As co-chair of Gov. Janet Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee, I was part of a private-sector group tasked with identifying the challenges and policy recommendations to fix the multiple problems created or exacerbated by the pandemic. It became crystal clear to us early on that the lack of access to affordable quality child care not only creates a dilemma for families, but also holds back our economy. This challenge, as much as any other, is a major roadblock for both children and their parents to meet their potential, particularly in places like rural Maine.

Recently, the Council for a Strong America released a new report “Early Childhood Programs’ Scarcity Undermines Maine’s Rural Communities” and video highlighting the disproportionate challenges that rural children face in accessing high-quality early programs and other supports.

The report points out that Maine is the most rural state in the nation, with 61 percent of our population living in a rural area. The report also highlights the fact that 23 percent of children in rural Maine live in poverty, compared to 13.5 percent of urban children. Children living in rural areas often lack resources and supports, including quality early childhood care and education, which research shows can strengthen the current and future workforce. Today, 26 percent of Maine’s rural children also live in “child care deserts,” where eligible young children outnumber licensed slots three-to-one or more. The report calls on policymakers to help ensure a strong Maine future by supporting investments to increase access to and quality of early care and education for rural children.

As an economist who grew up in Piscataquis County and has dedicated my professional life to improving Maine’s economic future, I agree.

The true realities of child care access now will continue to hold true after the pandemic is over. Child care is a key foundation that supports all segments of Maine’s economy. If we want to help families succeed, and the economy to truly benefit everyone, high-quality child care should be more readily available for children all across Maine.

Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services has identified the lack of rural child care as a major problem and has made addressing it one of its top priorities. The agency will now waive licensing fees for rural child care providers and provide mini grants to providers opening or expanding facilities, prioritizing those in rural areas. Coastal Enterprises, Inc. also received a $400,000 U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Community Economic Development grant to develop the Incubating Child Care Centers in Rural Maine Project. These are certainly steps in the right direction, but more is needed.

Policymakers are now grappling with this challenge in the current legislative session. As they do so I hope they will consider making these positive changes: support funding for more high-quality community-based early care and education partnerships; improve compensation and training for our early childhood workforce; create an early childhood system with regional coordination and “no wrong door” for families to access services; and improve data collection to monitor progress, analyze impact, and support continuous improvements.

If every family were able to access the quality child care they need, regardless of where they lived in Maine, we could increase workforce participation across this state and unleash the potential for true economic growth. We would also have people choosing to move here specifically to work and raise their children. That’s how important this investment is to children, families, the economy, and workforce attraction. A strategic, targeted investment in high-quality care and education of Maine’s youngest people will shore up the foundation of our economy and pay dividends for years to come.