The Importance Of Child Care To The COVID-19 Economy

Episode 201 – The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on child care. In this episode, we interview Lucy Recio, Senior Public Policy Analyst at NAEYC, about the state of childcare as a result of the pandemic, the relationship between childcare and the economy, and the importance of providers sharing their stories to advocate for more support from legislators.  

Resources: 

Episode Transcript

Lucy RECIO:

When you think about early-childhood education and childcare as integral to the K-12 system. So, really seen no longer as something that will be dictated by supply-and-demand and market but, honestly, that childcare is the public good that we know it to be.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Lucy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

RECIO:

Thanks so much, Ron. I’m so excited to be here!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re excited to have you, Lucy. To all our listeners out there: we have on the show today Lucy Recio. She is a senior public policy and advocacy analyst at NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in the United States.

And we’re here to talk to Lucy today about COVID-19 and the impact that that has had on the childcare community in the United States. Lucy, welcome to the show. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you. Why did you join NAEYC? Why are you passionate about early-childhood education and devoting your time and life towards this cause?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Thank you again, I’m so excited to be here. And I think it’s so fascinating, once I take a moment and pause and look at my trajectory professionally and how I ended up at any NAEYC, I actually started my career as a community organizer in Washington, D.C., mobilizing residents and tenants around equitable housing and livable wages as there were a lot of changes in terms of the demographics and just the makeup of the city.

And eventually I entered into education as a high school Spanish teacher. And I fell in love with education. However, I had received my educational training in policy. And I really had to make a decision at that point whether or not I would continue to be in the classroom or if I would return and really live out my call to be more involved in the policy and advocacy space.

And so that decision led me to working for a number of nonprofits, all of them education-focused. But they went from middle school students to eventually I worked and spent some time at the National Black Child Development Institute [NBCDI], which is another organization that focuses on early-childhood education and how it impacts black children and families.

And it was there that I found my love for early-childhood education and the deeply important role that it plays in the lives of young children and their families and the impact that it can have on communities. And that was about six years ago.

And since then I have been able to work in a number of capacities around policy and advocacy space. While I was at NBCDI I worked on the State of the Black Child, which was a seminal report discussing just risk factors for young children.

And now at NAEYC I am really committed to working with our 60,000+ members and our 51 affiliates across the United States to identify opportunities for advocacy to be central to the work that early-childhood educators and members of the early-childhood community take on, day-in and day-out.

And it’s something that I am deeply passionate about. It really centers the voices of the educators and the providers in identifying what are the policies that will govern how they are able to perform in their profession, as well as driving some really necessary changes that need to happen across this country as it relates to investing in the workforce: increasing compensation, expanding access for early-childhood education, and also really making sure that this is a system that is affordable for families who desperately need childcare as they continue to contribute to our society and our economy.

And so in many ways I see this work as social justice work; I see this as really nation-building; I see this as really impactful and important work for the future that we’re hoping to create. And I’m really thankful to be a part of this movement.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. It’s always great to hear when somebody smart like you just sort of naturally comes to the conclusion early-childhood education is so impactful, in particular having that policy [and] education background with the actual, direct relationships with children in schools and education programs. And that’s always a tough decision some of our guests have to make about moving out of the classroom to have an impact in different ways.

Now, one thing that you mentioned was contributions to society and the economy. And, of course, we’re dealing with unprecedented situation right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you start off by telling us what you’re hearing and seeing in the childcare or early-childhood education community at the current moment?

RECIO:

Absolutely. And I think it’s a really difficult time for this country to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has really had an impact on our communities, on our society. But for the childcare sector in particular, this pandemic has been particularly devastating.

One of the things that we know is that before the pandemic, childcare programs were already operating on razor-thin margins. We know that despite being the backbone of our nation and the early-childhood education profession being the profession that powers all other professions, programs right now – and providers especially – are in crisis. They really are challenged by the fact that so many programs have had to close. Many of them have not been able to reopen and if they do reopen, there are significant decreases in enrollment because many other states still have stay-at-home orders.

And so what we are hearing from the field is just a deep and dire desperation for the fact that many understand any temporary closures will really result in permanent ones because the childcare system was already in crisis and was already broken, where so many providers were challenged to even be able to provide the care and service that they know was so necessary to children and families.

And so as a result of this feedback that we’ve received and also as our role as the early-childhood education association in the United States, we really have it upon ourselves to learn a little bit more about the impact this is having. And so we conducted a number of surveys and we’ve also been working with other coalitions and in partnership with our affiliates to better see exactly what this impact is and how it is affecting childcare programs across the country.

But that really is a kind of like a high-level overview. This pandemic has been devastating. And what we are witnessing right now is the potential collapse of the childcare industry in the United States.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And that’s some dire news, certainly. What about the data, the research that you’ve conducted? What is that saying?

RECIO:

So, it’s been in many ways completely sobering. We have done at this point a series of two surveys. And so I will share a little bit of what we have learned as the results of that.

So, our initial survey, which was conducted from March 12th through the 16th, [we received] more than 6,000 responses from providers that represented childcare both in community center-based programs, as well as a family childcare homes. That initial survey indicated to us that half of those childcare programs anticipated they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without substantial support.

Now, we conducted a follow up survey, [for] which we were able to receive responses from more than 5,000 providers across all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and the island of Puerto Rico, where collectively these providers serve upwards of 215,000 children. They informed us that nearly half of the programs are closed. They also let us know that of the 85% that reported being open and operating, they were operating at less than 50% of enrollment capacity.

So, what that lets us know is that collectively, between the data that we’ve collected through our surveys, as well as indications of state-mandated closures, more than 100,000 providers have closed across the country.

And so of the approximately 2 million paid individuals who work with children [age] birth-to-five across this country, nearly 740,000 have been laid or furloughed, with those numbers only increasing every single week. And so that to us is extremely sobering. It’s something that is really challenging to take action and to respond.

And we know that beyond that, our field is also experiencing extreme weight as a result of these furloughs and these layoffs with one in five of those who were surveyed saying that they have not received any kind of financial support during this time, [whether] that is in the form of paid leave, a salary that they’re receiving or health benefits.

So, there is this deep need for this workforce, for these individuals who have now been laid off and who are furloughed, for them to be receive significant additional and flexible support from the federal and state governments.

And so what we need is, really, actions and protections and investments from our government to be able to protect the childcare supply across settings and across states in this country and honestly, to be able to support the workforce in moving through this extremely challenging time so that the field can continue to serve as that backbone for children and families across the country.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And I think that’s sort of one of the biggest questions right now. I was just reading an article this morning on the BBC and they were interviewing a single mother, I think it was. And her response was literally, quote, “It’s all about childcare. Without childcare, I can’t go back to work.”

And so we’re kind of in this situation, though, where it’s a bit of a catch 22, where we want to obviously mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus and limit the spread of the pandemic. But at the same time, we need to get back to work. People are under financial duress. So, how do we kind of optimize that balance between getting the centers open so that they can continue to be viable while also limiting the spread of this virus?

RECIO:

Absolutely. And we have witnessed in the United States a very real tension as well. I think particularly for those individuals who have been able to stay at home and work from home and work remotely, the burden and the stress of having to now be childcare providers for their children, to be able to make sure that children are engaged and learning while they are at home while also having to perform with their respective jobs.

And then for those that are essential workers, that have been at the frontlines of really mitigating the spread of this pandemic and addressing how that pandemic is impacting our communities, how they also need childcare to be able to provide these services.

And so what we know is that in order for childcare to be able to reopen and for this industry to continue supporting children, families and the American economy through this crisis and recovery, we will need ongoing, consistent and substantial public, private and philanthropic investments because at this moment, if we open childcare without those investments, it means we will end up closing childcare programs because they do not have the economic viability to continue to pay their mortgages, their rents, insurance, cover all of the costs that we know are so necessary for these businesses to run.

And so some of the things that we have recommended and that we are mindful of is that as we are conceptualizing and thinking about what a recovery plan looks like for this country and what it will take for us to move through this pandemic and really getting to some semblance of normalcy, we have to first just recognize and admit that there were structural cracks and financial cliffs that have existed for decades in the childcare industry in the United States.

And so that offers us an opportunity to re-approach financing and structuring systems for high quality childcare and education. We know that for a very long time, not enough children had access to high-quality childcare. In the United States, programs that support childcare for communities that are in low income, most of the funding for the childcare industry in the United States is provided through a program called the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and one in six of eligible children are actually receiving services.

And so we know that there’s a historic underinvestment. And as we move forward and we conceptualize this new reality, this new structure for childcare, it’s really important for us to think about a number of ways to be able to actually change that financing structure and to change the ways in which educators will be able to be paid for the incredibly important work that they do and for families to have access to the service that is so necessary for them to continue to contribute to society and be reintegrated into the labor workforce.

So, I think of key items that we can think about as we’re conceptualizing this. First and foremost, any plans to reopen states or to create systems changes for this industry has to be informed by the childcare educators and providers that are in existence at this moment.

I think that there is an unfortunate history in this country of systemic changes being created without the input of those will be most impacted by them. And so it’s necessary to make sure that the voices of the fields are really centered so that these are not things that happen to them and happen without their input. So, that’s number one.

I think that there’s a change that needs to happen that’s so critical and important in terms of how childcare providers across this country are paid. It is most often the case that individuals are paid by the child or by attendance in programs as opposed to enrollment. And that is something that is so necessary for us to adjust because as enrollment numbers continue to be low, programs need to be able to receive payment for the operating costs. And so there is a need to be able to count by contract and not by child.

Then we need to increase compensation for early-childhood educators. What this pandemic has shown us is that early-childhood educators have been essential, continue to be essential as we navigate and also will continue to be essential as we move through recovery. Yet it is unconscionable that early-childhood educators in the United States make an average of $10.60 per hour.

And so it’s necessary for us to think about increased compensation for early-childhood educators so that they can continue to do this work that is so necessary, as they continue to mitigate some of the traumatic effects that children have witnessed as a result of this time, as they continue to help re-strengthen young children in their development and also the families and communities that they are a part of.

I think it’s important for our federal government in particular to think and dedicate to actually have dedicated funding specifically for childcare that covers the cost of high-quality education, that really makes sure that providers are being compensated for what it takes to be able to provide high-quality early learning for young children.

And I think that all of those pieces – increasing compensation for educators, making sure that there’s a significant thought that education is a public good, that there’s a public investment from our federal state governments, as well, and that also we re-conceptualize how childcare is funded in this country – will be integral as we think about the future of this industry and how this system will be able to be functional once families are able to go back to work.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and certainly something that’s been on I think a lot of people’s minds is just in terms of what the quote-unquote “new normal” will be when our childcare program start reopening again, which is that if there’s new guidelines in place with regards to social distancing or other requirements, how do we maintain a viable model if there’s lower enrollment or lower attendance with more stringent health and safety requirements, which all costs money?

And certainly, like you said, the private [and] public philanthropic funding will be really key, in particular government support. And it would almost be a great opportunity to put that in place and continue to have that in place, even when the pandemic subsides, because to your point this is a sector that has been underfunded for quite some time. And the wage data point that you gave just speaks volumes about that.

And so it’s interesting to think about it in terms of the opportunity that this may also provide for some more systemic, long-term change for early-childhood education.

RECIO:

Absolutely. And I think that’s something that we have witnessed as a result of this – and I think that this is across the education spectrum, from early-childhood education and childcare all the way through higher education – is how deeply important and valuable educators are to our society.

The fact that there are families and communities that are really understanding in a different way than I think we had before this pandemic of how important it is for individuals to have a certain skill set, to have a certain set of knowledge and competencies, to be able to do the important work of educating and caring for children.

And so I do think that while this pandemic has raised so many devastating things in our country and really difficult truths about our society, one of the things that has surfaced is the need for us to really support educators, for us to really support the system of education within this country.

And I think it is time that, at least in the United States, we think about early-childhood education and childcare as integral to the K-12 system. So, really seeing is no longer as something that will be dictated by supply-and-demand and market, but honestly, that childcare is the public good that we know it to be.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And what parting words would you have for our early-childhood education listeners out there that are dealing with all the stress and anxiety that this pandemic has caused?

RECIO:

First of all, just thank every childcare provider, early-childhood educator, early-childhood system leader who has been working to provide care and educational support to young children across the country. While I know that many programs have been closed, early-childhood educators are resilient and so committed to this work. And they have identified ways to continue engaging with children and families via remote opportunities.

And so I first of all want to say how humbled I am to be in partnership with all of you as we lead this work forward. And as unfortunate as it is to have to add one additional thing to your plates, I think that now more than ever it is important for our elected officials to hear what it is that you are experiencing, that it is important for you to share your stories, for you to let individuals at all levels of government from your mayors and governors to your elected officials on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., [hear] exactly what it is that this pandemic and has done to your childcare program, the economic impact it has had on you, on your family, but also on the families that you serve.

I think it’s really important for our elected officials to understand just what is at stake if we do not receive the significant public investments. And what will drive all of the forward is hearing those stories, is hearing about the programs that have been serving communities for 10, 15, 90 years and because of this pandemic are seriously thinking and doubting whether or not they will continue to serve their communities because they do not have the support necessary to move that forward.

And so I will say, take this opportunity take this time to share your experience, to share your voice, and to really be a part of these advocacy efforts that organizations like NAEYC are leading, that we have a childcare industry to return to once this is all said and done.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That makes a lot of sense, Lucy. And if our listeners want to learn more about COVID19 from NAEYC or other sources, where can they go to get more information?

RECIO:

I would encourage individuals to go on NAEYC’s website, which is www.NAEYC.org. As soon as you arrive on to our website, you will see information around COVID-19. And it spans from our advocacy efforts as well as opportunities for professional development and learning, which we know is also deeply necessary at this time so that educators can continue to broaden and expand their skill set. All of that information is readily accessible on our website – again, www.NAEYC.org.

And I also encourage individuals to follow us on social media, both on Facebook and Twitter, through @NAEYC. And specifically for the advocacy efforts, NAEYC has a campaign which is called America For Early AD. And that really is our mobilization hub and it’s our advocacy hub. And a lot of resources and information that individuals can access on how they are able to contact elected officials or how we are pushing this discourse in the media can be accessed on America For Early Ad. And that information is available on our social media accounts, which is @SupportEarlyEd.

And so I encourage individuals to access both of those resources as they try and dig deeper into what it is that we are experiencing at this moment and how we are also responding.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. Thank you so much for those resources, Lucy. Thank you for joining us on the Podcast today. And thank you for all the work you’re doing for advocating for our early educators out there.

RECIO:

It is such a pleasure and I am so thankful to you and to everyone at HiMama for having us and for being a partner with us in this work. So, thank you so much for that, Ron.

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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