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.
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.