State officials said Monday they are expanding access to a program that assists families with child care expenses to include "critical" workers regardless of income because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The aid is called the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP. It normally helps low-income families with expenses for children at early learning centers while their families work, undergo job training or attend school.

But the state Department of Education said that, because of the virus, law enforcement, health care and other workers can qualify for the assistance and their applications will be expedited.

The subsidized care is for children 12 years old and under at licensed child care centers that take part in the program or through registered or certified family child care and in-home providers.

The state has about 1,700 of the centers, and they are not part of Gov. John Bel Edwards mandatory closing of public schools until April 13.

"If you can keep your children at home please do so," Acting State Superintendent of Education Beth Scioneaux said in a statement.

"But we must ensure affordable access to child care for those who are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response effort," Scioneaux said, a reference to the illness caused by the coronavirus.

"Opening CCAP to critical personnel is necessary and important as we fight the spread of COVID-19."

Attendance is down at many of the centers statewide, in part because more parents are working from home because of changes sparked by the virus.

In addition, Gov. John Bel Edwards' office and state health officials have advised limiting groups to 10 or fewer children and adults.

Olivette G. Temple, who operates early learning center in Slidell and New Orleans, said Monday attendance is down 25% at one of her sites and 30%-35% at the other.

"The only people coming are those essential workers, period and point blank," said Temple, who is president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana.

She said widening access to state assistance regardless of income will help critical personnel and the centers.

The governor has made learning centers for those from birth to age 4 one of his legislative priorities, including a $25 million increase that would trim the waiting list for CCAP by 4,000 children.

The 2020 legislative session is in temporary adjournment until March 31 because of the virus.

The state subsidies range from $22 per day at certain centers for those three years and older to $23.75 for toddlers, $25 for infants and $27.72 for children three and older with special needs, according to the state Department of Education.

The offer applies to workers in the health care, law enforcement, food and agriculture, energy, waste, public works, communications, critical manufacturing and hazardous materials industries, officials said.

Once applications are approved they will be valid for 30 days.

The state Department of Education will reassess applications if the health crisis extends beyond 30 days.

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