Crisis has a way of amplifying our shortfalls. Holes in the safety net become larger under the strain of unanticipated weight. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, our lack of investment in early childhood education is becoming tragically clear.
A shortage of quality, affordable child care is not a new problem in America. We have chronically underfunded programs for young children.
Our failure is confounding given what we know about early childhood. The first five years of life are likely the most important in terms of setting the stage for future learning. Yet, we omit these years from the public school system, consigning our early learners to an uneven patchwork of underfunded private and public programs in which many children slip through the cracks.
The Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based research organization, found in a 2018 survey that 83% of parents with young children said finding affordable, quality child care in their area was a serious problem. The same survey found a lack of child care disproportionately affected women and people of color, keeping them out of the workforce, stifling wages and hampering advancement.
When school buildings closed in March, many parents began working from home while simultaneously caring for children, an impossible task for most caregivers.
Essential and low wage workers in fields like health care, food service and retail didn’t have the option of working from home. For these parents, they faced the difficult task of finding child care that was often not affordable or on a schedule that met their employer’s needs.
Many child care providers closed out of safety concerns, low enrollment or positive staff tests. The National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed child care programs in June and found enrollment was down by an average of 67%. For providers operating under slim margins, retaining staff and maintaining facilities during this crisis will be difficult.
An analysis from The Center for American Progress found that the country is poised to lose more than 4.5 million child care slots as a result of the pandemic — 44,000 in Kansas. Where will those 44,000 Kansas children go?
Relatives, neighbors and friends can become lifelines for parents with few options, but their care may not be of the quality children need in their most formative years. A shortage of needed slots may well lead to an explosion in unlicensed child care providers, who are not held to the same safety and educational standards as licensed providers.
Increased federal, state and local investment in early childhood education has always been needed, but now it is truly essential. Child care providers need financial support to keep their doors open, modify their facilities for safe care and be available for essential workers.