As child care options start to open up more in the era of coronavirus in some states and on some military installations, defense officials are looking at the results of an ongoing pilot program to determine where it might be expanded to provide child care for more military families.

It’s the Military Child Care In Your Neighborhood-Plus initiative that started in October as a two-year pilot program limited to Maryland and five regions of Virginia — central, eastern, north central, northern and the Peninsula.

“We are in the process of reviewing the initiative for possible expansion to other areas where child care on the installation is limited,” and where state quality standards could provide an opportunity for more child care, according to DoD spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence.

DoD and the services have been looking at a variety of ways to increase the amount of affordable child care for military families, who too often face long waiting lists.

“COVD hasn’t changed the intent of the MCCYN-Plus initiative, but it may have slowed down participation since many programs are limiting operations to implement COVID prevention efforts,” she stated.

“I could see the impact of this pandemic going well into the second year [of the pilot program],” said Nicole Russell, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. “We’d certainly be in favor of expanding and continuing this program.”

Russell noted it could be helpful especially for junior enlisted families who might not otherwise be able to justify the cost of child care when making a decision about whether a spouse will work. “I never want to see a family have to make a decision like that, but the reality is, military families make that decision all the time.”

The current military fee assistance programs offset the cost of child care in the civilian community when child care isn’t available on the installation. It helps those in locations with long waiting lists for child care, as well as those in assignments that aren’t near a military installation.

The MCCYN-Plus pilot means more child care centers could participate in the fee assistance program in these two states. In Virginia, for example, MCCYN-Plus meant a possible expansion to more than 800 additional eligible child care centers in regions with military presence. In Maryland, there are more than 4,600 child care programs that can participate.

The pilot program tests paying the subsidy in locations where nationally accredited care isn’t available, but the child care centers are quality-rated by their state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS. That’s over and above state licensing. That’s the difference between the pilot program and the ongoing fee assistance – the ongoing program requires national accreditation; the pilot program expands the universe to include centers who aren’t nationally accredited, but are enrolled in their state’s quality rating program.

Ratings are awarded to providers as they continue to improve their quality.

Many states use a QRIS, although they use different names for their programs. In some states, the QRIS is regionally based. The QRIS in Maryland is called “Maryland EXCELS; in Virginia, it’s “VA Quality.”

Child care centers with a QRIS level of three or higher will be available to military families.

“Even providers that have met the standards of the lowest QRIS levels have achieved a level of quality that is beyond the minimum requirements to operate,” according to Child Care Aware, which administers the fee assistance program for each of the services.

Child care fees on military installations are based on total family income. The fee assistance subsidy for community-based child care is the difference between what the service member would pay for child care in DoD programs, and the community-based child care provider’s rate, up to a provider rate cap for full-time care of $1,500 per month for soldiers. For the other services, the basic provider rate cap is $1,100 per month and $1,300 a month in designated high-cost areas.

The service member is responsible for the DoD-established parent fees that service members pay on base, and any amount over the provider rate cap.

For example, for those in DoD Category 5 with a total family income between $63,885 to $81,310, the basic parent fee is $537 a month, regardless of whether the child is an infant or 4 years old. If their civilian child care costs $900 a month, the parent pays $537; the rest is subsidized by the military branch of service.

If the community-based child care costs $1,500 a month, the parent would still pay $537 if they’re a soldier; for the other branches of service, parents would pay $537 + $400 (over the $1,100 cap), for a total of $937 a month.

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.

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