This post is the third in the series, Uncovering Stories from the Early Care and Education Field During the COVID-19 Pandemic, based on in-depth interviews of child care providers across Wisconsin.
Economists and the world’s best neuroscientists agree, early life experiences are critical to lifelong physical, mental, and economic wellbeing. With over 70% of Wisconsin’s children having all available parents working outside of the home, early care and education (child care) plays a necessary role for many children during this window of rapid development. While quality early care environments support children to reach their fullest potential, they also allow parents peace of mind while they work.
Early care and education issues are a priority in rural and urban communities across Wisconsin. Before the pandemic, over 50% of Wisconsin citizens lived in what was called a “child care desert.” This means that there were three or more children for every one regulated child care seat. Businesses can’t recruit new workers and keep the ones they have when dependable child care isn’t available in their communities. As highlighted in the last blog post of this series, Impossible Choices, the current crisis has exasperated already thin financial margins for child care programs and they are shuttering their doors at alarming rates. At this current pace, Wisconsin will lose an estimated 41,357 child care slots, leaving care available for a fraction of the children who need it.
To put this into perspective, a family provider I spoke with in rural Wisconsin, who has stayed open through the pandemic, gets calls daily for care. A while back, she heard a knock on her door one evening to find a new mother and baby on the other side. This mother was desperate for any amount of child care she could offer. Unfortunately, the provider didn’t have any room left in her program. Turning down families-in-need is really hard to do. The child care providers I have spoken with have gone above and beyond to support as many parents as possible during this time, including providing care in families’ homes, cooking meals, and assisting school-aged kids with online learning.
Even parents who can work from home right now are struggling, working late into the night or waking up before the sun, so that they can do their work while their children sleep. For parents doing essential work outside the home, only 22% are able to utilize their previous care arrangements during the pandemic. This means many children are spending time in unregulated child care arrangements. Likely, costs for child care will go up to cover increased operating expenses, even though parents were already paying up to 30% of their household income on child care.
It’s crystal clear that the child care sector is essential. Wisconsin cannot afford to lose any more of its child care supply. The reopening of our economy depends on it. Yet, child care providers need help to stay open. During the pandemic, many have continued to do the impossible – more with less. This is hard work. Anyone who is now home with their own children day-in and day-out can testify to that. While providers have figured out how to carry on amidst all the new regulations, requirements, and fear of getting sick, they are becoming weary.
For months child care providers have been asked to fill out survey after survey documenting their needs. Again and again they ask for financial assistance, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and access to bulk food and household items, like toilet paper. In order to continue operating at this pace, child care professionals also need health care, paid time off, and mental health supports for themselves and the families they serve. With the responsibility that they hold, they also deserve a voice in K-12 planning and regulatory decisions affecting them.
It’s true many have received federal funds through the CARES Act and thankfully, this has allowed them to keep their doors open – at least temporarily. However, this money is already running out and most of their supply requests have gone unanswered. The work gets harder and more complex each day, resources are dwindling, and disillusionment is setting in. Individuals, communities, the state, and federal government must do the right thing and prioritize a field that has been steadily prioritizing our nation’s most precious assets, our children, for centuries.