The $18 million of available money is the latest round of federal aid to the industry. It is part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Surveys by the state Department of Human Services last year, found child care providers reported cost increases associated with meeting pandemic health and safety standards. 

 “The program was designed to be incredibly flexible, to get revenue out to the child care community,”  said Department Executive Director Courtney Hawkins during an interview in April. The money is being distributed on a grant basis and can be used for COVID-19 related expenses, including protective equipment or mitigation efforts, as well as wages or staff professional development. Awards can range from $3,000 to $50,000.

Over the last year, the state has spent millions in previous relief funds, for other grants and to increase the reimbursement rates to child care providers accepting families who qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP. 

Federal money is also helping fill a fifteen-year decline in state money going to the CCAP program, according to the nonprofit Kids Count RI. 

“We are spending $47 million less in state general revenue on child care than we did in 2005,” said Leanne Barrett who works on child care policy issues for the nonprofit. “There's not a lot of systems in the state where we can say we've pulled that much state money out.”

This year's increased CCAP rates are set to expire with pandemic-related executive orders, but officials with the DHS are pushing for permanent rate enhancements in Governor Dan McKee’s proposed budget. 

Hawkins says it may require a major boost in federal cash to adequately build out the state’s child care network, and that an increased awareness of the importance of child care during the pandemic has pushed the issue into the spotlight.

“I think all the right conversations are happening, that will allow us to actually not try to solve the problem around the edges, but go to the core,” said Hawkins.

“We need to help [providers] finance facilities expansion, we need to get money into the workforce so that these jobs are jobs that people coming out of college want to take, we need to fund the pipeline,” Hawkins said. “It's not easy. And it does require an infusion of resources to make it work. 

According to the DHS, already more than 65% percent of all eligible child care providers have submitted applications to receive funding from the current program, so far. The application period for the grants lasts through the first week of May.