COVID-19 Sheds Light on Existing Weaknesses in Early Childhood Systems

COVID-19 highlights the foundational weaknesses in our nation’s approach to early care and education. Unlike K-12 public schools, which are funded primarily by state and local government and operated by government entities or under their oversight, early childhood care and education in the United States is funded primarily through parent tuition payments and delivered through a patchwork of providers. These include center-based child care operated by for- and nonprofit entities ranging from small businesses to national chains, home-based childcare, Head Start, and school-based pre-K programs, all of which operate under different regulations and resources depending on the type of program they are, the age of children they serve, and where their funding comes from. 

It’s a complicated system given these underlying financing, structural, and policy factors, which COVID-19 has only underscored. The existing fragmentation has complicated efforts to protect children’s health and safety during the virus, ensure care for children of essential workers, or even collect accurate data to understand what is going on. And the system’s underfunding and reliance on parent payments has made early childhood providers and workers incredibly vulnerable in the current situation. 

As state and local governments began to close schools and nonessential businesses in mid-March, early childhood providers and state system leaders faced several urgent needs. These included making decisions about whether to close child care programs to protect child and staff safety, ensuring continuing access to child care for essential frontline workers, and providing early intervention and development support to children at home. As the chart below shows, these immediate needs cut across interrelated dimensions of health, economics, and child development — as does the early childhood field itself.

chart: "COVID-19 is creating new early childhood sector needs, and exacerbating others"

As early childhood leaders and policymakers begin to look around the corner — to think about economic recovery as the public health crisis begins to subside — new questions and challenges are emerging. Many early childhood providers have lost substantial revenues as a result of COVID-related closures and reduced demand for childcare, and are at risk of going out of business. Getting America back to work will require stabilizing the child care sector to enable workers across the economy to return to their jobs, or find new ones.

But the best available evidence also suggests that COVID outbreaks will continue to remain a threat, requiring geographically targeted closures and quarantines.  State and local systems will need capacity and data to support providers, families, essential workers, and children through future outbreaks. In addition, schools and early care and education programs will need enhanced capacity to support children who re-enter school or child care having experienced trauma as a result of the current crisis, or with learning and social skills gaps as a result of closures and educational disruptions. Addressing these mid-term challenges, which are likely to play out over the next 6-18 months or longer until a vaccine can be developed and widely distributed, requires innovative thinking, problem-solving, and capacity building. 

Coming out of this crisis, policymakers and systems leaders have an opportunity to build a more sustainable child care sector with the capacity and infrastructure to navigate future unexpected events. But building the political will needed to do so will be challenging, particularly as state and local governments face severe fiscal pressures and numerous competing demands for public funding. All of these factors suggest a need for innovative thinking — across federal programs and funding, state early learning systems, and within the structure of early childhood delivery and providers themselves — in order to create a thriving and sustainable system.

Over the past month, state and local policymakers, early childhood advocates, and organizations that support early childhood providers have taken a variety of actions to help address these issues and support essential workers and the early childhood sector. The CARES Act passed by Congress in late March also provided funding that states can use to help address some of these needs. But it is important for federal policymakers to have good ideas about how future federal stimulus funding could help put the sector on a path towards sustainability. 

Bellwether’s work supporting early childhood providers, funders, and operators across the P-20 continuum makes us uniquely well-suited to help the field grapple with these issues. 

For other Bellwether blog posts on COVID-19, click here, or see a list of external resources on our website.

4 thoughts on “COVID-19 Sheds Light on Existing Weaknesses in Early Childhood Systems

  1. Judy Owens

    Unless the rules have changed again with the cares act . I was told I was only eligible for $1000. Per employee . I am the only employee. That will help but if this goes on long term I will be in real trouble . I wet from 10 kids to 4 kids and those are part time . I want to stay open and plan to so kids can move back in as soon as parents go back to work . I put my application in for the cares act at that point $10,000 . Loan on April first . Last time I checked April28th I was told it is under advisement. I know it’s crazy time . But it is taking a long time to get funds or information.

    1. Beth Rupert

      I totally agree with this well-written article. Another big problem is the funding that is being passed down from Federal and State levels are not being fairly distributed. The smaller centers are not getting any funding while the big, franchise chains are making more money than if they were open. It shouldn’t matter how many ELRC students you have. All centers need money to stay open.

  2. Anita F

    I am a licensed HOME Day care provider. I chose this career 20 years ago knowing I would not get rich but maybe make a difference in children’s lives. if we are only registered the pay is maybe 300.00$ per child per month and we are allotted 6 to one ratio. This is 15.00$ a day per child. if licensed maybe 500.00$ per child per month 25.00$ a day. We do get reimbursed for food for children as well. i am most grateful for the help that was sent to me because of the virus. immediately after the schools shut down my caseworker (through cyfd) closed my case because the children were now at home with mom quarantined. even though i had received emails that this would not happen. I had to go through the chain of command to reopen my case. two weeks later another one o my cases was closed because mom decided to stay home with child because of virus. Again i had to go through the process.I have stayed open through out all this and have kept in contact with all my parents sending them activities to do with their children. i did not get stimulas, but i am thankful for the help i’ve been given these 2 months. I don’t know when this will end. i don’t know if we will keep getting paid, i really feel we have been over looked for a long time. we will all be ok Because this to shall pass thank you!

  3. Danielle

    We as daycare providers in Home, private or Federal run we can not social distance and the personal protection equipment (PPE) are going to the essential workers because we are not recognized as essential workers. We should be compensated with hazardous pay. We risk our lives and our family so that is essential workers can go back to work. Parents are avoiding immunizing their children putting the child care provider and children in harm to catch viruses. I agree that we do need funding and new provisions to keep the children we care for safe. The providers, business owners our respected of a career field that we have chosen because it is essential to put people back to work.

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