More than 600 child care providers locked their doors statewide during the coronavirus pandemic.By Meghan Schiller

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Child care providers ensure our little ones remain safe, engaged and actively learning.

But more than 600 locked their doors statewide during the coronavirus pandemic, unable to accept the infants and toddlers born to parents who still had to work.

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Advocates now want to build a stronger child care system to benefit both teachers and parents. With more than $1 billion of relief funding up for grabs, advocates are asking state lawmakers to spend the summer thinking about how to best spend that money.

“I think we need to fund early learning the way we fund public education,” said Ruby Martin, chair of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.

Martin joined a roundtable discussion on the topic hosted by Pennsylvania Senate candidate Val Arkoosh on Friday.

“If we didn’t have CARES Act funding, our doors would have shut down and I know a lot of programs across the state did,” Martin said. “So I think it’s important to know we can’t be lax and be high quality.”

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Chelsea Hallinan calls her job in child care rewarding, just not financially.

“The early childhood staff has the same qualifications as school district staff, but they’re treated as babysitters and not facilitators of higher-level thinking,” said Hallinan of Begin With Us Child Care.

“The average wage of a childhood teacher in Pennsylvania is $10.69 an hour and often these teachers have bachelor-level degrees,” said Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children.

DeBell wants the awarded $1.2 billion in American Rescue Plan money to improve the state’s child care infrastructure. Start Strong PA has offered a five-part plan to state lawmakers, hoping they’ll take the recommendations into final budget negotiations.

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The deadline to finalize the budget is June 30.

Meghan Schiller