Throughout the pandemic, child care has been a big challenge for families and providers.
The rise of omicron has made it even harder for child care centers to stay open every day to provide children and families with consistent and reliable care.
Deidre Anderson, CEO of EarlystART in Kansas City, Missouri, has faced significant challenges since omicron’s arrival. At one point, she had to close the association’s three childcare centres. At the moment one of them is closed.
“I have classrooms that are closed due to quarantines, but also classrooms that are closed because we can’t hire the teachers to fill those classrooms,” she says. “I have families who are stressed to the max, as are our staff. And frankly, it’s very overwhelming.
If a child tests positive for COVID-19, anyone who came into contact with the child within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms should quarantine for 10 days as children under 5 cannot not be vaccinated,” says Anderson.
Centers require children 2 and older to wear masks — but it’s hard to keep masks on young children, she says.
“It’s a lot of lost work days, a lot of lost training and care days, and a lot of unpredictability,” she says. “And for small children, it’s just very difficult.”
EarlystART serves over 300 children at full capacity. The nonprofit raises funds to help families pay for care, but its early childhood sector lacks a stable funding base, Anderson says.
“Unfortunately, we pay teachers at a much lower rate than K-12. It’s not a competitive salary,” she says. “Teachers are leaving the teaching profession at a rapid rate, and in early childhood it’s at an even faster rate.”
Entry-level childcare workers with a high school diploma earn between $13 and $14 an hour depending on their experience, but many people prefer to earn $15 to $17 an hour in a restaurant. fast food, she said. Master teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn between $45,000 and $47,000 per year.
With child care centers short-staffed and forced to close due to COVID-19, families face the stress of potentially losing jobs or income because no one can care for their children, Anderson says. And disruption of routine creates stress for children.
In her 30-year career in education and child welfare, Anderson says she’s never felt like she’s in “such a political hot box.” EarlystART’s vaccination mandate for staff and mask requirement is causing tension between staff and families, she says.
Currently, Anderson is running EarlystART from home as she just had COVID-19 for the second time.
“Omicron made it difficult for my admins to want to stay on it,” she says. “They’re just completely worn out.”
Anderson wants to see a coordinated effort to address workforce challenges, wage supplements to help retain staff, and continued awareness of the struggles faced by organizations like EarlystART.
“I think people now see that we are an infrastructure. We are like a road or a bridge that takes you from place to place,” she says. “People are seeing what is happening while we are unable to operate.”
“We don’t let our farms collapse in the event of a drought”
The US Treasury Department reported last year that the average cost of care was about $10,000 per year per child. But the child care industry also pays low wages.
People need to understand that child care is a business — with a failed business model, says Linda Smith, director of the Early Childhood Development Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The nation needs to rethink whether childcare is a shared responsibility, she says.
“We have a product that costs more to produce than most customers who need it can afford. It’s as simple as that,” she says. “You can’t increase staff salaries without increasing fees for parents, and they’re exhausted.”
Smith wants Americans to recognize child care as an essential public good that must be paid for by society as a whole.
Coming from a military background, Smith discovered how the Department of Defense and parents share childcare responsibilities. The DOD is investing a significant amount of money to better pay child care workers and ensure they have the necessary training, she says.
During the pandemic, the federal government has invested in child care stabilization grants. Without that money, child care providers can’t raise staff salaries, she says.
“We don’t let our farms collapse in a drought. We have built-in agricultural insurance and all kinds of supports to make sure we have food,” she says. “So why don’t we think child care needs some sort of support system that keeps it steady during the worst of times?”
The Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill, which is stalled in the Senate, included numerous investments in child care. Smith says the government needs to invest in stabilizing funding for child care and making sure parents can afford it.
To understand why affordable, quality child care is an essential part of a strong economy, Smith points to the current evolution of work in the United States.
“People – and parents, in particular – want more control over their lives,” she says. “We have to be careful about that because they won’t go back to work if they don’t have reliable childcare.”
Julia Corcoran produced and edited this broadcast interview with Chris Bentley. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.