“To see the issue of child care move into the center of public discourse is so important,” said Sarah Muncey, a Jamaica Plain mother and a leader in early education who has been advocating for systemic changes — to little effect, before now. “The pandemic showed us that this is an economic issue — that underneath it all, this humming city, is an invisible child-care force. We are not invisible anymore.”

The economic pressures of the pandemic forced numerous child-care centers to shut down. Boston lost 1,371 licensed child-care seats during the pandemic, a recent analysis by the Boston Opportunity Agenda found.

“The conversation is now more acute,” said Barros, who served as the city’s chief of economic development before announcing another run for mayor this year. “We have people who are out of the [job] market, not being able to go back. And it’s affecting women more than men.”

That new recognition of child care as part of the economic infrastructure has inspired efforts at the state and federal level to reform early education by infusing it with public funding. Advocates say public investment is required to right the economics of an industry that is often cost-prohibitive for customers but barely pays its employees a living wage. President Biden has proposed massive federal relief, Representative Katherine Clark and Senator Elizabeth Warren are pushing for reform, and a group called the Common Start Coalition has launched a campaign for the state to fund early education, similar to K-12 schools.

The candidates for mayor would seize upon those state and federal opportunities to finish what the former mayor started and go beyond it. All pledged to increase the supply of high-quality child care in the city and to create a cabinet-level Early Childhood Office to take ownership over the city’s confusing, hybrid public-private preschool system.

Here’s a look at the mayoral candidates’ proposals to reform child care:

Provide free universal preschool + child care

Four of the candidates want to establish a universal program that would guarantee early education and care for all Boston children from birth to 5 years old.

Boston currently only provides free pre-K for about half of the city’s 6,400 4-year-olds, either in Boston Public School classrooms or in community preschools such as YMCAs that get city funding for comparable “universal pre-kindergarten” programs. The application processes are separate, though, and difficult to navigate, and those who miss out can pay $15,000 a year for preschool. (Parents pay far more for infant care — an average $21,000 a year in Massachusetts, the second most expensive state in the nation for that age group, according to the Economic Policy Institute.)

“We need to move away from an outdated, archaic way of thinking about families and who bears the responsibilities for absorbing these costs,” said Councilor at Large Michelle Wu. ”The science shows that these are the most critical days and months of development in a child’s life.”

Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said the city must invest in early education infrastructure as a public good, similar to other infrastructure like roads, health care, and parks.

“What we invest in this is a demonstration of how much we value it,” Essaibi George said.

Her plan relies on the success of the Common Start Coalition injecting state and federal funds into city education proposals. The Common Start plan calls for an incremental rollout over five years that would give priority to the lowest-income, highest-need families.

“This isn’t tomorrow we’re going to flip the switch,” Essaibi George said.

Barros proposes using COVID-19 recovery funds to lay the foundation for a Universal Childcare system for children from birth to 2 years old. Most immediately, however, he would fulfill and expand on Walsh’s plans for free pre-K, guaranteeing it to all 3- and 4-year-olds, by increasing investment from $15 million to $75 million each year.

Councilor Andrea Campbell said that within her first 100 days as mayor, she would launch a “Boston Birth to Five Initiative,” led by a member of her cabinet, who would work toward creating universal early education for all young children. She also calls for using federal stimulus funding to jump-start the initiative and for prioritizing resources to those hit hardest by the pandemic.

“We don’t need another report to talk about how critical a foundation it is to our children’s development,” Campbell said. “It is essential that families have access to pre-K and affordable child care. This system has to function. And it’s not just about a child’s development. It also is important to our economy and to get women back to work.”

Campbell has the endorsement of Muncey, the early education leader, who says Campbell’s plan “for a cohesive 0-5 ecosystem is exactly the kind of big, bold thinking Boston needs.”

Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who previously worked as a community organizer on child care, is the only one of the five major candidates who has not released a detailed plan for it.

But, if elected to a full, four-year term as mayor, Janey, like the other four candidates, said she will embrace the recommendations of the Birth to Eight Collaborative, including expanding universal pre-K, increasing the number of high-quality early childhood seats available to families, and supporting family child-care providers and educators.

Supporting child-care workers and expanding capacity

As a recognition of the toll the pandemic has taken on caregivers and a desire for equity, several candidates’ child-care reform efforts aim to boost wages for providers, who are overwhelmingly women and mostly people of color.

“There’s this perception that because you’re a day-care worker, you’re simply a glorified baby sitter. That’s not the case,” said Essaibi George.

Both Essaibi George and Wu propose an early education track at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, where students could care for children from local families. Wu also proposes to cut red tape for in-home child-care providers, including zoning changes that would make it easier for them to open.

Campbell, who is also advocating for the Common Start Coalition, said she will create registered apprenticeships and build a pipeline of talent to make early education a viable long-term career pathway on par with K-12 teachers.

Janey said she would support family child-care providers and educators and noted that, as acting mayor, she invested $2 million in federal relief funds to support child care and early learning initiatives.

Barros points to his record helping to launch the Childcare Entrepreneur Fund, which provides grants and training to family child-care providers. And he proposes to make child-care workers among the first eligible for a guaranteed minimum income program he’s proposing for Boston.

To expand child-care capacity, Wu and Essaibi George both propose identifying city-owned land for that use and encouraging developers to create child-care space in new construction. Essaibi George would also offer tax breaks to early education and child-care providers building new facilities.

Creating a city office of Early Education

All five major candidates agreed to the collaborative’s recommendation to appoint a Cabinet-level aide to take responsibility for early education.

Wu proposes an Office of Early Education and Care that would serve as a one-stop shop for families.

“This has been a deeply personal issue for me that I’ve been fighting for and leading on for a long time because I have seen how complicated it is to juggle being a new mom and working and navigating child care,” said Wu, who was the first city councilor to have a baby while in office, and whose two sons are now 6 and 4.

With a user-friendly, multilingual website and fully staffed phone line, Wu proposes an office that would provide parents real-time information on available slots in child-care programs, Boston Public School preschools, and community preschool slots.

In addition to an early education office and streamlining the enrollment process, Essaibi George would create an Early Education Advisory Board and appoint an ombudsman to serve as a contact for families.

The mother of four teenagers, Essaibi George cited the need to make the system more welcoming to families to navigate.

“I want families to stay in this city,” she said. “In my administration, we’re going to prioritize family engagement across all our neighborhoods and make sure families see opportunities for them to make Boston their home.”

Janey also endorsed the creation of an office of early childhood education and proposed better coordination within City Hall.

Barros, a father of four children ages 9 and under, proposes a “Right Start” program to welcome new parents. Every parent recording a new birth certificate in Boston would get a welcome basket — filled with free library cards, subsidized memberships to the Boston Children’s Museum and online early learning programs, and information on enrolling in early education.

Campbell, a mother of two sons under 4, said her Early Childhood office would oversee her Birth to Five Initiative and work with city partners to streamline the process for parents and serve families in a holistic way.

“The city has to take the lead,” Campbell said. “It has to be the coordinator and the driver.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.