Military child care centers may be largely shuttered at the moment, but Army officials are promising to make them a top leadership focus in coming months.

Amid demands from lawmakers that military leaders better address family’s child care needs on bases, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy this week pledged that his service will prioritize funding for base daycare centers over the next five years, and unveil in coming months a 10-year plan to overhaul the entire system.

“We are now prioritizing these (centers) for renovation and increased maintenance if needed,” he said in a written statement to Senate Armed Services Committee members. “We’ve also identified those locations that need new (child care) facilities due to deterioration or increased soldier and family demand.”

Over the last year, the issue of gaps in child care services for military members have become an increasing concern for lawmakers and outside advocates, both of whom argue the problem creates readiness challenges for military units.

Defense officials have estimated they will need to provide daycare for more than 160,000 children next fiscal year. Army officials did not specify how much more money may be spent on those sites in coming years, but the service spent about $500 million on the centers last year.

Last summer, more than 8,000 children of sailors and 3,000 children of airmen were on Defense Department waiting lists for base daycare. The sites also came under extra scrutiny last year after the death of a baby at an unauthorized day care facility at the Aliamanu Military Reservation in Hawaii.

In recent months, service officials have scrambled to increase capacity and hire more staff to react to those demands.

In February, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that working military families will get higher priority in Defense Department child care programs, starting this summer. And earlier this month, a pair of key Republican lawmakers unveiled a proposal for 24-hour child care services at military bases where alternate-shift workers are concentrated.

But in recent weeks, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced the partial or full closure of those military day care facilities across the country, even as many military parents have continued to remain on duty.

Service leaders have left operations decisions to local commanders, but also discouraged any large-group gatherings and mandated other social distancing requirements. More than 5,000 troops, family members and Defense Department civilian workers have tested positive for the virus.

McCarthy’s child care comments came during a “paper hearing” for the armed services committee, where lawmakers submitted budget-related questions to service leaders remotely in lieu of a traditional in-person congressional session.

He said recent hiring authorities approved by Congress have eased some staffing challenges, noting that by last fall about 86 percent of all child-care staff posts were filled.

One new program launched in October, the Child and Youth Employee Assistance Tool, allows center workers who are moving to a new duty station to request a new job there and cut out some of the previously required paperwork and bureaucracy. So far, nearly 250 staffers have successfully used the program, and officials to expand it further in coming months.

McCarthy said the Army’s 10-year plan to “to fix all of our child development center challenges” will be presented to lawmakers in coming months.

Committee officials had originally planned a series of paper hearings with other service officials on their budget priorities and challenges, but abandoned those plans in recent days after military officials expressed concern that they were interfering with coronavirus response efforts.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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