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The Pandemic Is Taking a Toll on the Child Care System. Here’s What Analysts Say Is Needed to ‘Rebuild’

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About half of all child care centers are expected to close as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and their meager share of federal relief funds cannot begin to address the crisis in an industry that serves an essential role in both early education and the economy, experts said during a recent panel hosted by the Education Writers Association.

Congress set aside just $3.5 billion for child care in the federal CARES Act, a stimulus measure enacted last spring. As much as $15 billion more has been proposed in the HEROES Act, a follow-up spending measure approved by the Democratic-led House in May. That measure has been stalled amid an impasse between the House, the Republican-led Senate, and the Trump administration.

But industry experts and policymakers suggest it could cost as much as $50 billion to sustain child care and early learning providers over the next five months alone, Albert Wat of the nonprofit Alliance for Early Success told education journalists at EWA’s 73rd annual National Seminar.

“Obviously, the system needs more money to sustain these programs and businesses … so they will be available for families through this pandemic, but also once the pandemic passes and people start going back to work,” said Wat.

He did note that many child care providers were eligible for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, which may be forgiven if recipients meet certain criteria. But Wat said his impression is that a lot of providers faced barriers to applying for and receiving such loans. (A June analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center describes the challenges, and sites survey data indicating that about half of child care centers and one-quarter of home-based providers applied for such loans, but many did not receive them.)

Long term, he said, advocates and philanthropists are exploring ways to “rebuild the system so it’s stronger than before pandemic.”

Long-Standing Issues

Wat was joined on the EWA panel – exploring the pandemic’s impacts on child care and early childhood education – by Safiyah Jackson of the North Carolina Partnership for Children and Kansas preschool teacher Tabatha Rosproy, who was named 2020 Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The pandemic exposed what were already long-standing problems in the nation’s early childhood education system — a network of providers in child care centers, K-12 schools and private homes that serves an estimated 12 million children a day, said moderator Lillian Mongeau, a senior editor with The Hechinger Report who has written extensively on early childhood education.

Built on what Mongeau described as sexist and racist notions – that child care is women’s work and therefore less valued, and that society expects Black and brown women living in poverty to work outside the home, the system has long been hampered by chronic underfunding, limited oversight, low wages and limited access to government subsidies that would make quality care more affordable for families, she said.

“Only one in six who qualify for early childhood funding get it,” Mongeau said. “There’s a huge number of people who are on their own to pay for child care and can’t afford it. And that goes much farther up the middle-class ladder than I think people understand.”

When the pandemic hit in March, “there was a lot of chaos and convulsion in the field,” Wat said, as millions of unemployed parents kept their children home and providers incurred additional costs in an effort to keep their facilities safe.

States responded with a number of initiatives aimed at stabilizing the industry:

  • altering subsidies to pay by enrollment rather than attendance,
  • covering parent co-pays, creating child care centers for essential workers, and
  • offering hazard pay and guaranteeing testing and treatment for providers who tested positive.

But those were limited and not consistent across the country.

And much of the burden of keeping facilities open has fallen to low-wage child care workers, 90% of whom are women, said Rosproy, the preschool teacher.

“We’re forcing people to choose between financial ruin and putting their lives at risk,” she said.

Home-Based Care as a Viable Alternative

One way to bolster the industry, Jackson said, is for states to promote and support the creation of more home-based child care providers. The number of home-based providers has fallen dramatically over the last decade.

Jackson said these providers are “uniquely positioned” to respond to the pandemic because they tend to be smaller and participating children can be distanced more easily. At the same time, she said, the intimate environment of home-based care supports the brain development of infants and toddlers.

And, she said, home-based providers have weathered the pandemic better than their center-based peers, at least in North Carolina. In that state 90% of home-based providers have remained open, compared with 60% of center-based programs, Jackson said.

Emotional Impacts

Rosproy, who has taught preschool for a decade, said more must be done to address the crisis in early childhood education, including increasing pay for workers. And a failure to include providers in the federal bailout, she said, would have dire consequences, particularly for women – both those who work in child care and mothers who will be disproportionately forced from the workforce to stay home with their children.

But remedies to address the economic impacts of the pandemic aren’t enough, she said.

“It doesn’t even touch the emotional impact on both employees and students this pandemic is having and will have,” Rosproy said.

Suicide rates tend to spike in times of high unemployment, Rosproy said. “Psychologists are predicting the same for the pandemic, and our children are suffering, too.”

“Their worlds have been turned upside down,” Rosproy said. “A lot of children who come from trauma specifically come to school and child care to be loved and supported and to feel safe. And they’ve had to stay physically distanced from their emotional support.”