In light of child care shortages that are being exacerbated by COVID-19, lawmakers are urging Defense Department officials to take steps to help the many military families who may be in desperate need of child care this fall.

A bipartisan group of 35 lawmakers have written to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, citing concerns that this “child care dilemma” could affect DoD’s readiness.

“In light of the COVID-19 related school closures, approximately 1.2 million children under the age of 13 in military families will now require child care,” the lawmakers wrote, basing their numbers on the DoD 2018 demographics report. That report doesn’t state how many of those families don’t require child care because a parent is a caregiver.

The lawmakers noted that while DoD has an extensive network of child development centers, and other options for child care for military children, about 18,000 military children remain on waiting lists nationwide, which doesn’t account for the surge of school-age children requiring child care in the fall.

Schools around the country are reopening in a variety of ways in addition to the traditional in-person learning. Some are operating through remote learning, or a combination of remote and in-person learning. With the pandemic shutdown of schools and child care this spring, military families and others around the country found themselves suddenly at home with their children who were now being educated through remote learning. While schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity are set to open with in-person learning this fall, they are prepared for the contingency of remote learning if COVID flareups happen in their communities. DoD students also have the option of attending DoD’s virtual school.

In addition, while some military child development centers are reopening to additional children after being closed or limited to essential personnel during the pandemic, there are still limitations on the numbers of children, as social distancing is part of their extensive safety measures.

The lawmakers estimated that nearly 40 percent of active duty military members may be in desperate need of child care in the fall. Again, that represents the number of service members with dependent children; it’s not clear how many of those require child care for their children.

“Many of these families have reached out to us asking for support in navigating this complex problem,” lawmakers wrote. “Single military parents and dual military couples with children face added challenges given their essential roles at work and no additional help at home.

“Military-civilian couples fear the civilian spouse may be forced to quit their job to take care of their children, jeopardizing the financial stability of those families,” the lawmakers wrote. Military families may not be able to rely on their family care plans, because those plans may involve an older relative or those with underlying health conditions who could be at risk under COVID-19 if they travel.

“We urge you to work with community leaders, veteran service organizations, and state and local governments to develop and implement creative solutions,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., and Deb Haaland, D-N.M. “Further, we ask that renewed guidance encouraging creative scheduling and maximizing teleworking be provided to commanders at all levels.

“With gratitude for our military families, we remain eager and ready to assist with additional resources or authorities as required to provide for their well-being.”

Over the years, 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. In addition to child development centers on military installations, the services operate a program that allows spouses to be certified to provide child care in their homes on military installations. The services also offer fee assistance programs, which help service members find qualified child care providers in the civilian community, and subsidizes the cost for military families.

In addition, a Military Child Care In Your Neighborhood-Plus initiative started in October as a two-year pilot program testing a way to expand child care options. It’s limited to Maryland and five regions of Virginia — central, eastern, north central, northern and the Peninsula. The MCCYN-Plus pilot means more child care centers could participate in the fee assistance program in these two states.

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. The pilot program expands the universe to include centers who aren’t nationally accredited, but are enrolled in their state’s quality rating program.

Before the pandemic, Esper directed new DoD rules new DoD rules which give higher priority for child care spaces to military members. That goes into effect Sept. 1.

DoD officials have also issued guidance for commanders that they should consider continuing to allow appropriate personnel flexibilities such as telework, for service members with the ability to personally care for their children, to make the best use of limited child care spaces.

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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