16 Mar Why is Child Care in Crisis? And, What ReadyKids is Doing About It.
The child care industry is in crisis. Though many news outlets have reported a growing concern, the average American family likely will not feel the full impact until the pandemic is over. The ReadyKids Growing Minds team, however, is in the proverbial trenches. Every day they work with child care centers to stay open and deliver high quality support for children through what one preschool director described as, “not a storm, but a tsunami.”
Demand is High, But Supply is Low
Almost 20% of child care centers nationally have permanently closed in the last year. Child care providers who remain open are losing money every day, often going into debt just to survive. But, unlike restaurants, travel or the hospitality industry – where demand for services plummeted when people could no longer gather – there is still a desperate need for child care services as parents continue or return to work. Over 2.5 million women left the workforce in the last year to stay home to take care of children due to limited child care options.
COVID Changed Everything
Why is the childcare industry struggling when demand is high?
The answer, in short, is that the unique constraints of COVID-19 have changed child care as we know it. Programs have had to reduce their adult to child ratios because of CDC restrictions. Some have gone from as many as 20 children per classroom to only 8 children per classroom. This, in turn, has reduced the tuition coming in to pay staff and overhead costs. Heightened cleaning and sanitation protocols have not only increased the burden on staff, but also shorten the hours they can provide direct care to children – limiting a center’s open times to hours that are less convenient for working parents. Some centers may keep the same hours, but need to hire additional staff to serve as cleaners. How can they pay that extra cost – with less income? Decreased income with increased sanitization is the crux of the child care crisis.
“Everything has changed,” said Deborah Rogers, Director of Barrett Early Learning Center in Charlottesville. “We probably have three, typed pages worth of changes that we made because of the pandemic, anything from how kids come into the building and parents wait outside to switching to paper plates instead of washing dishes. The whole building has turned into a sanitization station.”
Strict CDC Protocols for Child Care Centers
CDC protocols recommend keeping kids 6 feet apart from one another, removing soft surfaces that could encourage germ growth but were also a place of refuge and comfort, and wearing face masks that hide smiles between children and their caregivers. At times, the work may feel like more of a chore than the joy it once was for early childhood educators.
“It’s heartbreaking to see where things are right now. At the same time, I’m seeing early childhood educators be more innovative and dedicated than they’ve ever been before,” said Gail Esterman, Director of Early Learning at ReadyKids. “Providers have rapidly learned to accommodate new guidelines, family concerns and staffing challenges due to revolving quarantines. They have moved play outdoors and created a calm understanding among young children that wearing masks, ‘keeps our friends safe.’”
What ReadyKids is Doing
Growing Minds is a ReadyKids program that improves the quality of early childhood care and preschool settings by offering professional development, coaching, training and support to early childhood teachers and program leaders. Early in the pandemic, Growing Minds worked closely with child care centers to match the few open child care spaces with essential workers who needed them. As the pandemic drags on, the Growing Minds Early Learning Specialists are seeing first-hand the strain on child care staff.
In order to soften the blow of the child care crisis, the Growing Minds staff has adjusted to meet the needs of child care centers in surprising ways.
- The digital shift to Zoom meetings has made it much easier to schedule time with Directors – because they don’t have to travel to a training or meeting. They can stay on site to support their staff, while also making connections with Growing Minds staff and other Directors.
- The Growing Minds team also created shorter, bite-sized trainings that educators can attend during naptime. Enrollment numbers have increased for these 30-minute Zoom sessions on topics like the importance of routines and facilitating play during stressful times.
- The Growing Minds team also delivers classroom materials, and uses technology to safely observe classrooms without entering the buildings.
- Finally, ReadyKids continues to work with the United Way of Greater Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge Health District to facilitate COVID vaccines for child care workers.
What’s A Struggle
Other aspects of the Growing Minds program are more difficult during the pandemic. For instance, Growing Minds coaches can’t visit sites to observe how Early Childhood Center staff interact with kids, provide experiential training, and model new skills. Likewise, participants of our Child Development Associate Program who are ready to apply for the credential, have been put on hold because testing facilities closed and verification visits have been unavailable.
While leaders like Esterman are elevating the voices of child care workers on the state and local level, the major societal changes that COVID created will have a lasting impact on this industry.
“It’s been hard for most of the private centers to stay open, but we have done it because parents need to be able to go back to work,” said Rogers. “And, we do it to hear the laughter in the classrooms, hear the kids tell stories and use their imagination. They haven’t missed a beat. As we master the skills we need to stay open, kids are still here, happy and learning.”
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