Early childhood care providers are heroes. On a regular day, they create loving, nurturing, and educational environments for our youngest, whose brains are developing more in this short period than they will at any other time in their life. These providers are, of course, employers and employees themselves, but their presence also allows others to go to work, who know their child is being safely cared for. As the First Five Years Fund stated in a recent letter to Congress, “the through line in all of [a community] is child care.” But as more states slowly reopen other businesses, what’s going to happen if early care providers can’t?
According to Child Care Aware, only one state requires that early care providers remain fully closed. Seventeen allow them to care for the children of essential workers, but these guidelines get muddy as states reopen non-essential businesses. And thirty-two states, primarily the ones that have partially reopened or will soon, are allowing providers to open for everyone. But despite this, many providers are, and have been, closed, and the likelihood of them reopening is uncertain. Just Google “daycares reopening” and you’ll see news stories from across the country wondering about the future of these crucial businesses.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children conducted a nationwide survey of providers and found the situation for most to be bleak. Only 11 percent of providers felt confident they’d be able to reopen after the pandemic, while 63 percent said they wouldn’t be able to reopen without public investment after they had closed for periods ranging between one day and one month. Fifty percent of providers are losing income primarily because many families can’t afford to pay tuition. Twenty-five percent of providers are losing income primarily because they’re not receiving the state subsidies they normally do, which are allotted based on attendance, not enrollment.
While some closed providers are still collecting tuition from families hoping to save their spot, many have stopped collecting altogether or have even given tuition back to families who may be out of work. Even those who’ve remained open to essential personnel like healthcare workers are sorely hurting. Legislators need to be prepared to support providers in the coming months as they attempt to get back on their feet, because for many providers, closing (or not collecting enough tuition) for the duration of the pandemic means a loss of revenue so significant that reopening will be impossible.
The March 27 CARES Act allocated $3.5 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $750 million to Head Start. This money is intended to support the early care providers who are still operating and those who will reopen after the pandemic. Some states have even allocated additional money to their child care funds to support more of them. There’s other resources, too, like the Paycheck Protection Program, to help providers continue to pay their workers. But legislators need to be sure that providers have awareness of and access to these options—and that there’s enough funding to go around. One provider we spoke with, who runs a highly rated childcare center serving over one hundred families, was only able to secure $10,000—not even enough for one month’s fixed expenses.
This is why early childhood advocates recommend considering long-term solutions, too. This could include creating economic subsidies for providers, such as rent deferrals or zero-interest loans to help pay for what they may need to retain their space, their staff, and the families they serve.
These will be important things to consider as more and more states partially or fully reopen, while still urging people to maintain social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. When people go back to work, they’ll need someone to watch their children. But you can’t really ask toddlers to stand six feet away from you, so will it be safe to allow a classroom to reopen for its twenty or so preschoolers? Most early care providers run on a really tight budget, so they need to operate at full capacity to pay their bills.
We’ll say it again: Early care providers are heroes. They do some of the most important work for notoriously low pay. Now we’re asking them to risk their own health to support essential (and maybe non-essential) workers, or risk losing their jobs. And amidst all the uncertainty, so many of these rock-star early childhood teachers continue to do activities and story-times via online platforms, some without the certainty of a paycheck.
As more working parents of preschool-aged children are juggling working from home while also caring for young children around the clock, the absence of high-quality early childhood care providers is keenly felt by all families. This will only get worse if states open but providers can’t. Legislatures across the country should ensure that doesn’t happen.