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A list of procedures in use to decrease the risk of novel coronavirus COVID-19 infection, posted child care center in Baton Rouge in this April 9, 2020 file photo.

State officials said Tuesday day care centers already reeling because of the coronavirus pandemic face a new challenge: How to lure teachers who make an average of $8.95 per hour to return to the classroom, and give up unemployment benefits that have more than doubled their pay.

Jessica Baghian, assistant state superintendent of education, said the health crisis has shined a spotlight on the "untenable level of payment" for those who work in centers that largely care for infants and children up to age 5.

The dismal pay for teachers in day care centers, though little known outside of education circles, has sparked concerns previously.

But the issue is getting renewed attention now that the pandemic has forced the closing of 70% percent of Louisiana's roughly 1,400 early learning centers, and left hundreds of teachers out of work.

Libbie Sonnier, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said during a meeting of a state advisory panel that the combination of state and federal unemployment benefits mean some of those teachers are collecting about $20 per hour, more than double their teacher pay.

The state pays up to $247 per week for unemployment aid, with the federal government adding another $600 per week from the $2 trillion recovery legislation approved by Congress.

The payments, which are set to expire in late July, have sparked a national debate on whether the federal assistance is so generous that it will delay the re-start of the economy because lots of workers are collecting well above what they are used to.

"It is really concerning," Sonnier said.

The issue surfaced during a virtual meeting of the education subcommittee of the Resilient Louisiana Commission.

The commission is an 18-member panel providing advice to Gov. John Bel Edwards on how to re-open the economy.

Baghian said some child care providers are discussing offering teachers bonuses to narrow any gap for teachers who give up their unemployment benefits to return to the classroom.

But a survey by Sonnier's group released earlier this month said providers have lost $30 million amid the pandemic, largely because moms and dads forced to stay home have opted to keep their children with them. Day care operators also say the need an average of $23,000 to re-open.

Most of the 30% or so of centers that remain open are caring for the children of "essential" workers who qualify for special state assistance because of the health emergency – about 5,600 children.

Advocates have said they need $71 million to re-start the state's network of early learning centers.

Where that would come from is unclear.

The state's allocation of federal pandemic aid includes $50 million for public schools, day care or higher education, all at the discretion of Edwards.

"That is an important lever in all of this," Baghian said.

Surveys have shown that up to 3 in 10 child care centers statewide may remain closed permanently, depending on how long families stay home or operate under new work habits.

Sonnier said today's $12,000 per year pricetag for infant care could rise to $16,000 annually because of smaller enrollments.

"What we hear loud and clear from providers is to not make their fees so outlandish that the parents can't afford it," she said. "It is something to think about."

Alan Young, who operates a child care center in Shreveport, said if lots of centers remain closed for good child care expenses could balloon.

"The cost of services are going to go through the roof," Young said. "It will make affordable price and high quality early childhood education unattainable for most of our vulnerable children."

"That is the last thing we need to happen."

Baghian said there was a "significant uptick" in the number of centers that re-opened when Edwards announced the initial round of loosened work and other restrictions, which took effect on May 16.

"I am optimistic further about the number we will get to in Phase 2," she said.

The governor is expected to announce next week whether the state will resume more work, recreation and other activities effective June 5.

Edwards earlier proposed a $25 million boost in state aid for early childhood education.

It would have allowed about 4,000 children to qualify for a state program that helps defray costs of care while parents work, undergo job training or attend school.

That plan has been shelved amid budget problems sparked by the pandemic.

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Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.