Early childhood education in the age of COVID-19: Part two in a series

By Hannah Riddle

In a previous post, Program Quality Specialist Hannah Riddle explored two important ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected child care providers: financially and operationally. In this follow-up, she addresses the coronavirus’ ongoing toll while looking toward a stronger future for the sector.

A colorful stack of cloth masks on a table

As SARS-CoV-2 began spreading in the United States in early 2020, the virus’ impact on child care—a sector that was already in crisis—was immediate. Fortunately, funding to support child care providers was included in coronavirus relief bills at the federal level as early as March 2020.

  • On March 27, 2020, Congress provided $3.5 billion to states to shore up the child care sector as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
  • On December 21, 2020, Congress extended some of the relief measures included in the CARES Act, passing a new stimulus bill which allocated another $10 billion to the early education field.
  • On March 11, 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which includes a $39 billion investment in early childhood education.

Despite Congress’ actions in 2020, financial problems for this chronically underfunded sector remained. Congress’ latest allocation of funding is cause for optimism, and it comes at a critical time. After more than a year operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic, child care providers continue to experience constant change and much adversity. Data from a nationwide survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) portray a stark financial reality. As of December 2020, when NAEYC released the survey results:

  • 56% of child care centers “were losing money each day they remained open,” and
  • 44% were “confronting so much uncertainty” that they couldn’t say how much longer they would remain open.

Poignantly, 42% of survey respondents said they had taken on personal debt to buy supplies for their programs, and 39% said they had used money from their personal savings accounts to do so. All of this is against a backdrop in which day-to-day operations are more expensive because of a need to purchase additional cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment as well as, according to 60% of respondents, additional personnel costs when providers or their family members test positive for the virus.

Providers have also made dramatic changes to day-to-day operations in response to new regulations. Daily cleaning and disinfecting routines have been dramatically extended. Stuffed animals have been removed from classrooms. Providers are encouraged to enforce mask mandates for all children ages two and above. A source of stress for providers and families both is the knowledge that a provider may have to close abruptly for weeks if a staff member or a child tests positive for COVID-19. Another stressor, of course, is the looming question of closing permanently. In Minnesota, 63% of respondents to the NAEYC survey reported that they knew of more than one child care provider in their community that had closed for good.

One such provider is Hopkins Early Learning Center (HELC) in Hopkins, MN, which closed its doors on December 18, 2020. Due to the pandemic, the program experienced an unsustainable combination of lower enrollment and increased operational costs. I spoke with Jamie Bonczyk, then the executive director of the program, in September 2020 for an earlier blog post on this topic. I got back in touch with Bonczyk in the wake of her program’s closure to ask if there was a message she’d like to share about the impact of COVID-19 on the child care sector.

“My one thing I would like people to know is that we were a fragile industry before the pandemic,” said Bonczyk. “And we have the opportunity to build back stronger by addressing the ‘big three’: access, affordability and quality.”

When HELC closed its doors, 22 educators and staff lost their jobs and the community lost access to 117 spaces for high-quality child care. At a time when Minnesota is experiencing a child care shortage—the most recent estimate I have seen suggested that another 40,000 spaces are needed to meet demand in greater Minnesota—such loss hits especially hard, especially for parents and their employers.

After publishing that earlier blog post, I heard from Courtney Greiner, director of Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko, Minnesota. She wrote about her experience and that of her employees.

“The teachers that work here are amazing, kind, showed up when others didn’t,” she wrote.

“They risked their health, their family’s health, and did it for the right reasons. […] They knew what they were doing was making a difference, and I hope that that doesn’t get lost when this is over. I hope that it isn’t forgotten that they showed up so that the essential workers could also show up. [The teachers] were caring for [essential workers’] most precious family members so they could take care of everyone else’s sick family members, so that food could be stocked at the grocery store, so that gas stations could be open, so the mail could go out, so the country could continue to run. Without these caregivers, where would the kids go while the essential employees were working?”

Courtney Greiner, Director, Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool, Esko, MN

Greiner’s viewpoint is compelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many of us have used phrases like “essential worker” for the first time. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve come to realize the truly interconnected nature of our society. While our culture tends to prioritize individualism, the many ways in which I depend on others in my community have become clearer.

Of course, Greiner’s words will still apply when we get “back to normal.” Our need for high-quality child care will still exist, as it always has. I hope that we fulfill Greiner’s vision by remembering the dedication of child care professionals who continued to do their jobs so that, as she wrote, the country could continue to run. I hope that we hold onto our acute awareness of the value of their work. And I hope that policymakers seize the opportunity that Bonczyk identified—the opportunity to build the child care system into something better than it was before the pandemic.

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