Sara Gilliam

How 2020 Has Affected the Field of Early Childhood Education

In this episode of the Preschool Podcast, we connect with Exchange magazine’s Editor in Chief, Sara Gilliam, on the effects 2020 has had on early childhood education and what we can expect in 2021. Exchange is an early childhood leaders magazine that focuses on thought leadership. It covers various topics around inequities in the field, race and racial justice, and pedagogical shifts to name a few.

In our interview with Sara, she discusses the top factors that have shaped the child care industry in this last year based on Exchange’s research and feedback from their audience:

  • Closures and Financial Strains. Entire school districts, home child care centers and multi-site centers have closed their doors due to financial reasons, and many haven’t returned. Applying for emergency relief funding was not easily obtained either.
  • Layoffs and Furloughs. Reduced ratios due to COVID and inaccessible funding have lead to smaller class sizes and less demand for educators in the classroom.
  • Fear & Anxiety. The unknown aspect of how COVID transmits and what it means for our future was a large factor early on in 2020.
  • Costs to Programming. New public health requirements mean centers and programs are expected to find their own funding (or even pay out of their own pocket) in order to meet public health guidelines.
  • Race & Racial Justice. Families that centers work with have been personally affected. BIPOC families and staff are feeling these shifts very deeply more than ever before.
  • Hard Conversations. Children are cluing into what is happening with COVID, injustices in our country and beyond and they are beginning to question what is going on- sparking those hard conversations with families and educators.

Sara continues that she wants Exchange magazine to provide words of hope and wisdom in a way that she had hoped would become relatable and useable to their readers. Sara says, “Authenticity and transparency are more important now than ever before when you’re looking at those relationships between administrators and families.”

40% of ECEs are women of color…and are in appalling low wage conditions and arguably are doing the most important work.

Sara Gilliam, Editor in Chief, Exchange Magazine

Sara mentions that we should also reconsider certain things within the classroom such as design and structure that we never had to consider before. Sara states that they’ve seen a lot of programs and educators who have decided to explore anti-racist ideas in their programming this year. “There have of course been people in early childhood who have been committed to these things but this groundswell of interest and proactivity has surfaced.”

Predictions for 2021 in Child Care

  • Communication. We’re seeing a change in how centers can operate and communicate with families on an ongoing basis. Families aren’t allowed in the centers anymore, how will we fill keep ongoing communication? Using a child care app is a great way to fill this gap!
  • Creation of New Child Care Centers. Although we’ve lost too many child care centers in 2020, the need for child care will always be there. Some centers and individuals have pivoted and created new centers and new programs to accommodate the change in child care.
  • Provide Opportunities for Leaders to Share their Voice. We need to continue to encourage individuals who are considering early childhood education to continue to do so and provide them with opportunities.
  • Parent Involvement. Families now see how hard it is to care for children 5 days a week, 8+ hours a day. They’re beginning to understand the importance and need for child care and better pay for our educators. “While we’ve seen a boost in people who see the value in the field, there’s still so much more to share. The family piece is huge when it comes to policymakers and legislation”.

How Exchange Magazine is Helping the Future of Child Care

Focusing on Stories of Innovation and Courage. By focusing on positive and hopeful content, Exchange magazine put out this content to its readers with the intent that the readers would relate to the content and gain some power and knowledge from it to use in their own situations.

Bringing Knowledge and Awareness of Child Care to Everyone. With new changes happening consistently, Exchange aims to answer the question, how can we keep our audience in the loop about changes and innovation to the field?

Be a Leader Around Inequities in Early Childhood Education. It has been important for Exchange Magazine to lead around the topics of inequities in our field. Sara mentions that we’ve seen a lot of programs and educators who have decided to explore anti-racist ideas in their programming this year. There have of course been people in early childhood who have been committed to these things but this groundswell of interest and proactivity has surfaced.

Authenticity and transparency are more important now that ever before when you’re looking at those relationships between administrators and families.

Sara Gilliam, Editor in Chief, Exchange Magazine

The article mentioned by Sara in The Preschool Podcast is from The Hechinger Report on the child care crisis.

Looking to learn more about Exchange Magazine and subscribe to their content? Check out their website, Facebook and, Instagram.

Episode Transcripts

Episode 242-


And so I think we’re really walking into this opportunity to rethink what are the most important, boiled down essential aspects of early-childhood education and what matters to children, what matters to families.


Sara, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thanks so much for having me!


We’re delighted to have you on the show today, Sara. And to our audience, we have here with us Sara Gilliam. She’s editor-in-chief of Exchange Magazine. And hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to check it out, either in print or online. We’re excited to talk to Sara today about all the things that she’s been reading about and seeing through her role as editor-in-chief of Exchange magazine over the last few years, but in particular over the last year that we’ve been going through this global pandemic and what trends we’re seeing.

First of all, Sara, let’s learn a little bit about you and yourself. Tell us your background and how you ended up being editor-in-chief of Exchange Magazine.


Sure. So, I have almost always, throughout my career, worked in education and in the nonprofit sectors. But I did kind of press pause after I had my first child to get a master’s in education with endorsements in secondary education in E.L.L. And so I actually am a former middle school teacher. I kind of wear that like a badge of honor. And I absolutely adore that age group. But when the opportunity came along to be the editor-in-chief of this magazine, of course I had to jump. And writing and editing or my first passions.

And so about five years ago, Exchange was purchased by a nonprofit in Nebraska – my home state – from its original founding editor and publisher. And so I was kind of hired on-board to jump in feet first. And my younger son was a toddler at the time. So, I have to say it’s been an incredible experience kind of using him as a guinea pig. I would have these articles coming in all about the best and newest and most innovative thinking in early-childhood. And then I’d try everything out on my son, kind of as I was reading and going along.

But what really happened was I began to value just the wealth of thinking and doing that was happening – and is happening – in early-childhood programs and in family childcare centers around the world, around North America. And as cliché as it sounds, I just really fell in love with this field. And I’m just lucky enough now to be in a job that lets me keep learning. And my mind is blown just about every day.


I hear you on that one. And tell us – anyone out there – who doesn’t know what Exchange Magazine is. Maybe you can tell them what it’s all about?


Yeah, you bet. So Exchange was founded 43 years ago as Childcare Information Exchange. And the idea was that it would be a place for directors of centers, principals, leaders in the field of early-childhood to exchange information, hence the name. And we’re published six times a year. We publish in print in North America and then we have a large international readership that gets our digital edition. And then we also have a book and resource publishing division that focuses on leadership and education.

But really it’s conceived of as the Early Childhood Leaders Magazine and was conceived as a way of sharing information. But now I think we really think of it with a broader definition of leadership. And if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that leaders can be found in every single classroom and early-childhood space in this country.

And we’ve also really started to focus on thought leadership for the field and kind of try to push our field through our content to tackle conversations about inequities in the field, race and racial justice, pedagogical shifts and so on.

So, what I like to say – and my son made fun of me for this this morning, so take it with a grain of salt – but I sort of view myself as this wizard in flowing robes with a wand kind of stirring together all the great thinking that’s out there and putting the pieces together and finding that alchemy that brings together balance of different perspectives and each issue of the magazine.


I like that!


He thought it was a bit much with the magic wand. But honestly, I feel that there’s both a science and an art to putting together a magazine and finding the most interesting writers and creators and educators who are out there right now.


Yeah, and I think any early-childhood educator will appreciate the imagination and creativity of that definition.


Yes, one hundred percent. It had an influence on me, for sure.


And wow, 43 years. You don’t hear of too many magazines, companies, businesses or programs that have been around for that long. That’s fabulous.


Yeah, it’s such an honor to be a part of this publication’s history. I feel like I’ve kind of come in… I mean, it’s the end game, if you look at that 43 years. I hope we have a long future ahead of us. But it’s been big shoes to fill, that’s for sure.


Yeah. And so as I mentioned in the introduction earlier, a lot has changed for childcare and early learning programs over the last year. And you’re sort of on the on the front end of receiving a lot of this information in your role as editor-in-chief of this magazine. Perhaps you could tell our audience a little bit about some of the trends you’re noticing and seeing in terms of challenges for programs, educators and families. And then maybe also we can touch a little bit on how Exchange Press is helping with some of these issues. But let’s start with that first question there.


Yeah, you bet. Well, this year has been a doozy for our field, and that is a very G-rated way to see it. So, thanks for giving me the opportunity to provide some context. And this is both based on research from our professional organizations but then also, as you mentioned, a lot on anecdotal stories I’ve heard in my role as editor of Exchange.

So first, looking, of course, at the big elephant in the room: COVID [19]. We’ve seen entire closedown of school districts and in their childcare programs, and some of those have still not returned to in-person learning. And I’m sure many of your listeners have experienced that in their personal lives.

We’ve seen then re-openings of programs with reduced capacity, which has led to teacher layoffs or furloughs, reduced class sizes and requirements of social testing and those kinds of things. And it seems like a long time ago now, that we were muddling through all of this. But of course, it’s just been a year since we started to hear phrases like “social distancing”.

Then there’s just this huge kind of unquantifiable fear and anxiety – especially early on – that people were feeling about spread and risk. There were so many unknowns about the virus. There were huge costs to programs – early-childhood programs – of outfitting spaces to conform to public health requirements.

So, just as an example from an article I read last week: a preschool in Portland, Oregon, had to spend $16,000 on facility upgrades to meet public health guidelines. So, we’ve seen these centers – both larger centers, multisite organizations, and then also family childcare programs – grappling with reduced income, the complexities of applying for that emergency government funding. There was PPP funding and things like that. Not necessarily a skill set that a lot of early-childhood professionals have been able to foster in their own lives. So, that’s one piece.

Another piece, of course – and this maybe speaks more to your listeners in North America, although it’s affected the world – but is this reckoning around issues of race and racial justice that we’ve experienced in North America. And that means that families that we work with have been personally affected. BIPOC families are feeling these events and these cultural sorts of seismic shifts very deeply. And so are staff.

There are also, of course, family fears around personal safety for themselves and their children. And then, of course, we all know that children pick up on things. So, they’re hearing and seeing news; they’re hearing what’s been happening in our country; and they’re asking questions that spark those hard conversations with parents and educators.

And one thing I also really want to mention is that wherever you fall on the political spectrum, I think it’s hard to deny this culture of divisiveness that we’ve lived with in the US for a number of years now, sort of a feeling of “us versus them”. And I really think that came to a head this year. It overwhelmed our country during a time when ideally we would be coming together as one national community to weather a pandemic.

So, I promise I have very positive things to say, as well. But I want to talk about a couple more things, since you mentioned them. One is looking at what families of young children are dealing with. And again, of course, many of our listeners who are parents of young children, this is going to tick all their boxes. But we’re looking, again, at a year of unprecedented, just generalized anxiety about the state of the world and what kind of news is coming next.

People have been dealing with job loss and significant economic insecurity. My husband was unemployed for four months in 2020. And I can tell you that that made a pretty big impact on our household dynamic. So, a lot of households around North America and around the world have been dealing with that.

Because of social distancing parents have lost those family and friend supports, those quote- unquote “breaks” from parenting – the Grandparent Effect. They haven’t been able to rely on those kind of traditional outlets that help them get through some long days or weeks of parenting.

And of course, they’re really concerned about their own children’s physical and mental health. They’re stressed about screen time; they’re working from home while they’re parenting around the clock.

And then finally, I think a big thing that a lot of families have dealt with is accessing childcare. Will their program be open? And if so, what are the new protocols? What new systems do we have to learn to make this work?

So, I want to kind of close this contextual piece by just telling you some things that we’re hearing from educators and leaders in the field because I think they really give a little window into how this year has affected early-childhood professionals.

People are saying, “We’re working harder than ever. We are tired. But we love our children and we remain invested in their will wellbeing, first and foremost. We are being asked to adapt constantly, which creates expenses and more workload.” Some are saying, “I have or my spouse has numerous health challenges and I’m scared to teach in person. It is impossible to teach preschool over Zoom [online video conferencing]. Everything in my being tells me that video instruction for this age group is more harmful than helpful.”

And the number one thing that I am hearing from everyone I interact with has been, “I just miss the children. I just miss being able to hug my kids.” So, while it’s been an intense year for every single person listening to this podcast, I have no doubt, it has definitely been a very challenging and unnerving year for people in early-childhood education.


Yeah, and to me, the last year has just really reiterated and emphasized how undervalued and underappreciated early-childhood educators are. You talked a little bit about [how] they’re working harder than ever. And folks are tired, they’re stressed. And I think about how difficult their job is in the best of times. So, I can only imagine how difficult it is for folks dealing with all of this right now.


Oh, absolutely. And I think… you’ve jumped ahead of my ideas here, which I think is fantastic because I totally and completely agree with you that a positive that has come out of this year is a deeper respect and understanding of our field. And maybe jokingly, that comes from a bunch of parents being trapped in small spaces 24 hours a day with their young children.

But I think as a culture, there’s really a recognition now that childcare workers are essential workers. And the way that those front line workers can get to work is if someone can watch their children. So, I do think that that’s kind of a silver lining to the chaos of this year, is a new understanding that these people are powering our society.


Yeah, and even with my partner and myself and our friends in our network, we’ve had that conversation numerous times over the last 12 months of just, how do they do it? How do these ECE’s [early-childhood educators] do what they do? And not only just, like the basic health, safety and well-being but it’s almost like the early-childhood educators that work with our children are performing magic. They sent us a picture the other day of our three-year-old eating kale as proof that he can eat it at home!


That is magic! I question the veracity of that photo, if your child is anything like mine – it sounds like it was doctored. But yeah, I mean, I think educators are conjuring magic and so are administrators. They are finding efficiencies; they are creating make-and-take bags; and they’re producing video story times; they’re learning how to use technology they’ve never touched before. And they’re thinking, “How can we, in whatever our limited circumstances are, how can we support our children and families?” And that’s just been so apparent, as well, through this whole year.


And without being in the classroom and being able to support early-childhood educators directly, both in my role and in your role, what are some of the ways or things that you think Exchange Press can help with some of these issues?


Well, we made a decision pretty early on in the pandemic. I work very closely with our publisher, who’s our executive director of our overseeing nonprofit organization. And we together made a decision that we wanted to focus on stories of innovation and courage. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re not acknowledging the challenges.

But, for example, in our current issue, we have an article by staff and board members of a beloved center that had to close, talking about the very intentional and thoughtful way that they approached that decision. But bottom line, we really felt… and we also heard from our readers, “What we want to hear is hope and optimism and positivity.”

And so we really focused on courageous leadership in a way that we hoped would become relatable and reusable to our readers. And I have a couple of kind of fun examples of that: I mean, one thing that came forward really clearly is that authenticity and transparency are more important now than ever when you’re looking at those relationships between administrators and their staff and their families.

And so I think something that’s come from this is we have this opportunity to center authenticity in every aspect of our approach to this kind of new normal. We’ve seen changes in everything from how we consider the design of classrooms. I’ve got an article upcoming that’s looking at, “Okay, we’re going to have to meet social distancing guidelines. But how can we use that to really be creative and totally rethink how we put together a preschool classroom?”

Or how we structure learning age groups: we’ve seen a lot more a lot more multi-age groups to accommodate the small groups that can work together in person and how we teach. And then the conversations about what we value most. Because I think a lot of this year has been about stripping us all down to those core values that keep us going and motivated by this work.

I also think it’s been important for Exchange to lead around acknowledging inequities, particularly in our field. And we’ve seen a lot of programs and educators who have decided to explore anti-racist ideas and their programing this year. These were phrases that I was not personally even hearing four or five years ago. There, of course, have been people always in early-childhood committed to those ideas. But this kind of groundswell of interest and proactivity around these concepts is very exciting to me.

And I want to read one little quote from one of our magazines, a piece called “Reconsidering Our What-Ifs.” And this was written by a childcare provider who said, “What if distance learning meant learning from a distance of at least 6 feet from all adults? Or better yet, 60? What if the summer slide was actually a slide, a tall, scary, risk-taking slide that a child creates from a tree limb without the help of an adult? What if the coronavirus was the awakening in education that the United States has been looking for?”

And so I think we’re really walking into this opportunity to rethink, what are the most important, boiled-down essential aspects of early-childhood education and what matters to children, what matters to families?

One more thing I want to say about families and that family connection is that coming through a trauma tends to unite people. And we are absolutely hearing that parents, that families of children, young children, are closer than ever to their teachers, to their center directors. There’s been a big uptick in communication, more kind of, I would say, empathy and support all around.

And then again, of course, after being trapped at home with their children, I think that a lot of parents have this epic, new appreciation of how hard teachers work and how endlessly creative and patient they are.

So, we’re also seeing opportunities to improve and change and think about how we communicate and partner with families. And I think that once we get through this dark and stressful era, we’re going to see some really interesting innovations and changes that come out of some of these conversations.


So, let’s talk about that a little bit more. Obviously, nobody has a crystal ball, but what are some of the things that you’re predicting or expecting in 2021 as, fingers crossed, we start making our way out of the COVID-19 challenges and some of the other challenges, frankly, that we’ve been facing over the last 12 months, as well?


That’s a great question. And I wish I had a crystal ball. And I will say that I really look to the policymakers and the think tanks, to kind of guide me. There was a big article last week – so the week of the February teens – in USA Today that came out from The Hechinger Report that really looked at the future of early-childhood education. And there are some pretty grim statistics in there.

We know that a large number of centers have closed. And several of the owners that were interviewed for this article said that they were within a month or two of running out of money. And we also know that 166,000 fewer people were working in childcare in December of 2020 than in December of 2019.

So, the field has taken a hit. We’ve lost jobs and we’ve lost centers. So, a big challenge, I think, is rebuilding and boosting occupancy, helping centers keep their doors open, encouraging the creation of new centers. We were already drastically short on childcare space in this country before we had to socially distance and change classroom structure and makeup. So, that’s going to be a big challenge, I think, for the rest of the year.

And we’ve got so much positive news right now. We’ve got the proliferation of vaccines so that hopefully by the end of this year we can be back up in terms of enrollment and centers can be sort of getting back on their feet. But we know that a lot of family childcare providers and even center administrators have taken on personal debt in order to keep the doors open. That’s going to take some time to unsnarl.

And then I also just want to quickly speak to that ongoing challenge of inequities in our field. A statistic thrown around a lot – and for good reason – is that 40% of early-childhood educators are women of color. And they tend to be in appallingly low-wage positions doing what I would say is, arguably, some of the most important work in the world. So, we’ve got a great deal of work to do on that front as well.

But what I’ve been so inspired by is how, even in the midst of the stress or the chaos or the uncertainty, how ready to do that work early-childhood professionals are. And I think there’s this scrappy, hard working, “It is all for the children,” kind of mindset that exists in this field that is really unique and really special.


Yeah, the passion and perseverance is definitely a cornerstone of early-childhood educators out there, that is for sure. And those are some shocking stats – 166,000 jobs lost, basically. And I guess it’s scary to think, too, about what that means in terms of younger folks thinking about career opportunities, too, right? So, just another reason why we have to emphasize the importance and the equity and the pay side of things, as well, with this field. Because if we want the best for children’s development, we have to invest in the early-childhood educators.


100%. We need to be doing everything we can as established people in this field – as parents, as existing educators – to support and encourage people to pursue degrees in early-childhood education, to try apprenticeships where they’re working with children and finding out if this is something that they could be passionate about. Because we need that bench to be deep.

But that does lead me… I hope I can say, I think something really important that listeners can do, especially if you are parents of young children, is to share your story. Are you having a hard time accessing childcare? Did you and another group of parents continue to pay tuition even when your children couldn’t attend programing, to help your program keep the doors open?

I think while we’ve seen a real boost in how much people understand the value of this field, there’s still so much more we can do to share these stories of the challenges of working families, of the people who work and these programs. I see that very much as part of my role as Exchange editor, to give voice to teachers and other practitioners and professionals who are having these experiences.

But that family piece is really important when we’re thinking of policymakers or elected officials or things changing on a systemic level. What do young families need? What are their struggles? So, you’re exactly right. What are we going to do in ten years? Are people going to be going into this field when we know that the wages are pretty low and the respect is kind of, “Eh”? It’s going to be an ongoing challenge. And I think parents, surprisingly, have a really important and interesting role to play by sharing their own stories.


Absolutely, they do. Yeah, absolutely. And there’s only so much screaming from the rooftops that we can do ourselves, as everyone involved in early-childhood education, the families who are participating in all these programs and the knowing the importance to society at large are a key part of that conversation, as well.


It’s almost the best-kept secret until you’ve got young children. I will confess to being that adult that wasn’t that dialed-in to the needs of working families or to the childcare world until I had young children. And then you realize the absolute art that goes into educating young children, to running a successful program, how slim those margins are for those programs and what an essential part they are of our countries, our global infrastructure. So, yeah, it is. There are so many people out there banging that drum and we’ve got to bang louder.


Yeah, and I couldn’t agree more with your point about “best-kept secret”. It’s just there’s so many parents that I know, anecdotally, who have said what you said, which is they don’t really know how amazing early-childhood educators are until they have children and use childcare services. And then they’re like, “Whoa, like, it’s amazing what these folks do!” So, I absolutely agree with you there.

Before we wrap up, Sara, you touched on the point that, with Exchange Magazine, you’re focusing on hope and optimism and positivity. And we want to, at the Preschool Podcast, as well. Before we wrap up, what words of hope, optimism and positivity would you have for our listeners out there today?


If you will indulge me, I’m going to use someone else’s words because an amazing center director from New York City happened to write something that I think speaks perfectly to that question. So, I’m just going to read what she said. Her name is Cecilia Scott-Croff.

And she said, “To the teacher’s family, childcare providers, an infant toddler specialist on the front lines who have supported the most vulnerable families and essential workers: I salute you. I am thinking of the early-childhood community in New York who are afraid, yet courageous enough to ride the New York City subway system to work, reporting to work, even while not knowing if you would make it there and back safely, walking to avoid public transit, showering before kissing your children, uplifting each other with positive messaging, songs of hope, the cha-cha slide and tick tock: courage.”

And I feel that she just so beautifully sums up the spirit and the energy of this field. And as long as these educators and leaders and visionaries are out there with one goal in mind – which is caring for children – we’re going to come out of this on the other side. It’s going to take it’s going to take work but work feels good. And we’re going to come out stronger on the other side.


Yeah, awesome. An awesome way to end our conversation. Sara, if our listeners want to learn more about Exchange Magazine, maybe check out some of your materials, where can they go to get more information?


So, you can visit or @ExchangePress on social media. And you are welcome to reach out to me: it’s just


Wonderful. Sara, thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. And thanks for the work you’re doing to get the news out about all the things that are happening in early-childhood education and connecting all those early-childhood leaders out there!


Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much, Ron!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!