As parents struggle to afford child care during the pandemic, the city of Lawrence has established a scholarship fund to help lower-income families access safe, affordable options.

On Sept. 30, Mayor Daniel Rivera announced a new $400,000 fund to subsidize day care services for 200 children through the end of the year. The city is working with local organizations and licensed child care providers to select and help enroll the families.

“We have to do things to make sure people’s lives don’t slide backwards and aren’t being put in pain,” Rivera said. “For us in Lawrence, having so many people who are essential workers – or who, if they want to work, they can’t work from home – child care is essential to them.”

In August, the city of 80,000 received media attention after closing an unlicensed 25-child daycare in a home. The mayor said the city needed to shut down the operation and emphasize the importance of licensed care, but he didn’t want to engage in the public finger pointing that occurred. Families were simply making the best of a bad situation, he said.

“We weren’t going to criminalize poverty,” Rivera said.

The demands of remote and hybrid learning have only exacerbated the stresses on families this year. Financially struggling families don’t have the option to pay for private schools or neighborhood learning pods, Rivera said.

“It underscores the inequity in the crisis,” Rivera said. “If you’re poor in this emergency, and you’ve got to work, there’s nothing. And especially if your child’s got to go in front of Zoom, it’s a problem.”

The city’s program aims to bridge the child-care gap for what Rivera called “cliff families” – households that make too much money to receive a state subsidy but who can’t afford market rates without help.

Families making up to 100% of the state median income can qualify for the city’s scholarship fund, while, in order to receive a state subsidy, many families may make no more than 50% of the median. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s median household income in 2018 was $77,378. The median household income in Lawrence for that same time period was $41,583.

The program offers a sliding-scale copay – $12 a day on average – and families receive an average scholarship subsidy of $44 per day, according to Maria Gonzalez Moeller, CEO of The Community Group, a Lawrence-based nonprofit. Her organization manages the scholarship program along with its child care resource and referral program, Child Care Circuit.

The effort has been placing children in licensed settings around the city, ones that feature trained staff familiar with remote learning plans, reliable internet access, socially distanced interactions with peers, nutritious food, physical activity and opportunities for outdoor playtime.

By Oct. 22, the program had distributed more than 300 applications and enrolled 81 children, and had received an additional 30 applications for processing, Moeller said.

“Overall, families and providers are very grateful for this funding and grateful for the mayor’s commitment to child care as an essential service for working families in our city,” Moeller said. “We think this is a great model for other communities in the state.”

The mayor said he hopes to use federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to cover the cost of the scholarship program, and he would consider approaching the City Council for additional funds to continue the program into next year.

While each level of government has a role to play in COVID recovery, Rivera said, local governments must help residents solve the problems that hinder their daily lives.

“In the end, we’re the closest to the people, and we have a responsibility to be helpful,” Rivera said. “And we can’t pass that responsibility on. We have to act on it.”

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