Army Sgt. Carol Landers paid a stay-at-home mom to watch her young son on post last year. The childcare arrangement worked well for Landers, a mortuary affairs specialist based at Fort Lee, Virginia, but then COVID-19 lockdowns hit. Suddenly, she had no childcare provider, and when she finally located a learning center that would enroll her son, it was far more expensive than the stay-at-home mom option.
Where would that extra money come from?
“My husband was making $10 an hour and worked nine-to-five, but his check was allocated to other bills,” Landers said. “We were able to barely make it work, but it was a struggle. We had to use the services protection for our phones so they wouldn’t be cut off.”
The challenge described above is exactly what two new Army Emergency Relief (AER) programs hope to alleviate. Dubbed the AER COVID-19 Childcare Assistance Program and the AER COVID-19 Homeschool and Remote Education Assistance Program, each one doles out a 100%, no-pay-back grant to Army families for child care and/or remote learning costs caused by pandemic-related shutdowns.
“COVID-19 has made taking care of and educating children much more complicated for military families,” Matthew Howland, an AER spokesman, said. “Many families have been on the hook for out-of-pocket expenses, including temporary baby-sitters or daycare arrangements, or have had to bear extra costs as a result of the switch to remote learning.”
That was the case for Katrina Leadbetter, an Army wife at Fort Bliss, Texas. She and her husband shelled out more than $2,000 to outfit their daughters for learning from home in 2020.
“That was obviously an expense we weren’t expecting, but didn’t feel we had much of a choice,” said Leadbetter. “Any help or assistance with these expenses would have been a big help.”
In response to stories like the Landers and Leadbetters, Howland says, AER kicked off the new programs in February. AER already provides approximately $70 million in annual grants and no-interest loans to over 40,000 military families experiencing financial hardship, making the organization uniquely suited to help. The new programs are ongoing, with no deadlines.
“For childcare, this includes costs for before-and-after school care, childcare facilities, nursery schools and private sitters,” Howland said. “For homeschool and remote learning assistance, this could involve tutoring, educational software, extended Wi-Fi, computers, tablets and more — for students from pre-K through undergraduate.”
To access these programs, families should contact their local AER officer, usually located at the nearest installation. Howland added that an online assistance portal will be available soon and soldiers can also speak with their chain of command.
Encouragingly, AER says that 99% of requests are being approved currently. The childcare program has no limit to the amount available per family, while the remote education benefit is capped at $2,000 per year per family for grades K-12 and $3,000 for undergraduates.
“Having some financial assistance for childcare would have been a huge relief,” Landers said.