With Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that retail, restaurant, and other businesses can reopen as early as Friday around the state, thousands of Texans may be headed back to work at a time when schools remain closed and options for child care remain scarce.

Abbott ordered in March that licensed child care centers could remain open to serve only the children of essential workers, such as health care providers, child care providers, truck drivers, utility workers, and grocery store employees.

That leaves retail employees, dining staff, and others called back to work without an option for child care beyond one-on-one arrangements, teeing up what could be a costly decision.

The average monthly cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Texas is $589 per month, according to the nonpartisan think tank the Economic Policy Institute. A 2019 EPI report states that a minimum wage worker in Texas would need to work full time for more than seven months to pay for child care for one infant, whose average monthly child care cost is $777.

If an employee from one of the newly reopened businesses can’t place their child in school and can’t find affordable child care, they may have to quit their job and before Thursday, could have become ineligible for unemployment benefits.

But on Thursday afternoon, Abbott announced that workers can continue receiving unemployment benefits if they choose not to return to work for certain reasons specified by the Texas Workforce Commission.

These reasons include having a household member at high risk of getting sick from coronavirus, being diagnosed with coronavirus, or schools and daycares being closed without alternatives for child care available.

The governor, at his Monday news conference, said Texas is looking at ways to expand child care resources and “make them available, in a safe way, to more workers across the entire state.”

“We know how important this issue is to working families, and we’re giving it the speedy attention that it deserves,” he said.

The seats are available to children of essential workers with eligibility provisions outlined here.

Those open seats can be found through a new state service: Frontline Child Care. The website allows parents, employers, and child care providers to interact.

Parents can enter the age of their children, their family’s location, and needed financial aid and find a map and list of child care providers fitting their needs. Employers can offer emergency child care or figure out if employees might be eligible for financial assistance, and child care providers can list their business as open.

School districts also will be able to use the site to establish emergency child care.

Elaine Mendoza, the chair of the board that governs Pre-K 4 SA and a regent with the Texas A&M University System, is leading the statewide child care effort. Mendoza and her task force helped develop the online resource site. On Wednesday, she underscored the need for child care so essential workers could continue clocking in for work.

“It’s almost an infrastructure capacity that is needed in order for essential workers to go back and do their thing,” Mendoza said. “It was way before the reopening was considered this was about ensuring that our essentials workers, while we were closed, had access to child care.”

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But as Texas businesses prepare to reopen, the essential worker definition will not expand at this time, she said. It is something Mendoza and her task force are thinking about, however.

“We are in parallel to the governor and [his advisory] medical team looking at all the options in what happens next,” Mendoza said. “The state agencies are already proactively thinking about this and looking at their processes and procedures to make changes.”

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Mendoza offered no timeline on when more workers would be able to access child care, saying her group follows the directives of the health professionals advising Abbott and will be prepared for when those advisors determine it is safe to expand access to child care.

On Thursday, there were nearly 6,500 providers offering services, with more than 133,000 spots available for children. About 95,000 of the available spots were designated for children too young for school, Mendoza said.

This story has been updated to reflect up-to-date figures on child care providers offering services and a Thursday afternoon announcement from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.