Military families have “inundated” a nonprofit organization with requests for temporary financial assistance for child care, following the organization’s announcement of a temporary program to help junior military families struggling with child care costs during COVID.
“Service members are struggling to meet child care costs,” said Nicole Russell, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit organization that launched a temporary child care financial assistance program Sept. 28. Within 10 days after the two-week application window was launched, NMFA had received about 6,600 applications for the fee assistance program, which offers reimbursements of up to $1,500, she said. The deadline for applications is Oct. 12.
Those eligible are families of service members in pay grades E1-E6, on active duty, activated reserves or National Guard on active Title 10 or Title 32 orders for six months or longer. “We’re really focusing on the junior enlisted side in particular, because child care costs are a much greater proportion of their income,” she said. To check eligibility and apply, click here.
The response highlights the difficulties military families have had with finding accessible, affordable child care — struggles which have been exacerbated in various ways by the pandemic. Military and civilian child care centers have shut down or had limited capacity, and parents have also been attending to their school-age children’s needs who are being schooled remotely at home.
Other nonprofits have provided assistance to military families for child care costs to the pandemic, too. For example, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society has provided $132,425 in child care assistance to 115 clients, said spokeswoman Gillian Gonzalez. Of that, $121,184 was in loans and $11,241 in grants.
Priority for the NMFA assistance is given to families with a service member who is deployed or on extended temporary duty; dual military families and single service members. Half of the applicants have been single service members or dual military couples, Russell said.
Eligible families with children ages 13 and under may receive reimbursements of up to $1,500 for before- or after-school care; child care at child care center, nursey school or by a private sitter; day camps, summer camps holiday camps; late pick-up fees; and private caregivers of a special needs family member. Spouses must be employed a minimum of 15 hours per week or currently pursuing a degree or professional licensure or certification.
Since the summer, she said, “we’ve heard from dual military families about how worried they are about getting back into the workplace safely, and about being able to access child care that’s somewhat affordable,” Russell said. “Those are some things we’re seeing, trends that we’re very concerned about.”
Russell said her husband, a field grade officer, is worried about some of his Marines who don’t have access to the on-base child development center, because of limited space. There are service members who desperately need child care and who serve in a capacity that may not be deemed essential such as health care workers, she said, but who really need to be in the office.
Military families are being affected in a variety of ways, as child development centers and other programs deal with various issues. For example, at Fort Belvoir, the six child development centers have reduced their hours because of staffing issues due to the COVID environment. Before COVID, the centers were open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; now they are open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
One reader described the change as “problematic” for Fort Belvoir parents. “Although this is not particularly earth shattering, it is certainly worth highlighting as uneven and frankly, wrong,” he wrote in an email to Military Times. He noted there has been no corresponding decrease in child care fees.
“Fort Belvoir currently has inadequate staff to operate a 12-hour day due to the COVID-19 environment, therefore, the hours were reduced,” said Army spokeswoman Ellen Lovett, in an email response to questions.
Commanders approve CDC operating hours for their installation in consultation with their child development services coordinator, Lovett said. Decisions are based on installations' operating environments, considering factors such as COVID infection rates in local communities, installation health conditions, reduced child care demand, staff availability and the ability to maintain safe environments for children and staff.
Across the Army, child development centers remain open to support mission essential and first responders, and the centers maintained or changed their operating hours to meet the mission for those they serve, she said. “Very few centers have reduced operations and are still operating within Army policy.”
As for reductions in fees, she said, the DoD regulations define a full day of child care as six to 10 hours per day. “As Fort Belvoir is providing full-day care according to that standard, there is no basis to seek an exception to DoD policy for reduced fees based on the current CDC operational hours.” She noted that if CDC patrons can’t afford the fee set by DoD policy, they can apply for financial hardship waivers.
“Throughout this challenging time, Army Child and Youth Services employees and Family Child Care providers have worked diligently to provide continuity of child care for the families of soldiers and essential employees,” said Helen Roadarmel, program manager for Army Child, Youth and School Services, in a statement provided to Military Times. “Since March, CYS employees and FCC providers have cared for [about] 12,000 children at 278 facilities and 127 Family Child Care homes across the Army, providing soldiers and their families the peace of mind they need to accomplish their missions.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.