Spotlight Exclusives

First Responders’ Needs Mean Tough Choices for Childcare Providers

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

As the COVID-19 virus reaches into all corners of the United States, child-care workers are being asked to step up. They’re being called on to provide care for the children of medical personnel, law enforcement and others in critical jobs. Yet these workers, who are generally low paid and unlikely to have health insurance, now face difficult decisions around risking their jobs and their safety.

Although the situation is changing daily, many states are asking child-care providers to stay open while other businesses close. Cities and states are also setting up special child-care sites for the children of critical workers.

Robin Lewis was working as a lead teacher at Wishview Children’s Center, a private preschool serving infants through pre-K in Greensboro, N.C. until a family member of someone at the school feared exposure to COVID-19. A test of that person later came back negative. Like so many child-care centers, the site where Lewis works has closed. It plans to re-open in May.

In New York City, 93 child care facilities in shuttered schools have been re-opened as “regional enrichment centers.”

In Atlanta, special sites are being set up by the YMCA of Metro Atlanta for the children of city hospital workers.

Ohio has issued temporary “pandemic child-care licenses.” North Carolina is requiring special approval for child centers to operate under new safety guidelines.

At the same time, child-care workers face a very different problem. Across the country, despite the need, many child-care centers are shuttering.

From small paychecks to no paychecks

Robin Lewis is a lead teacher at Wishview Children’s Center, a private preschool serving infants through pre-K in Greensboro, N.C. Lewis’s paycheck was small before the virus; now there isn’t one at all. Like so many child-care centers, the site where Lewis works has closed.

Enrollment fell about 40 percent in early March. The plan was to stay open even though staff “were scared to death” as the epidemic worsened in mid-March, Lewis said. Then a family member of someone at the school was believed to have been exposed to the virus. The center was closed. A test of that person later came back negative.

“We’re all laid off. We’re all applying for unemployment benefits,” Lewis said.

Lewis was earning $14 an hour as a lead teacher. The starting salary for staff is $10 to $11 an hour, they said. “My co-workers were working a second or even third job [to make ends meet],” Lewis said.

Lewis feels lucky to have a spouse who works as a nurse and has a higher income and benefits. But many co-workers don’t have health insurance, Lewis said. They were living paycheck to paycheck.

Big job, poverty wages

Even before the pandemic, child-care workers as a group were in economic distress, said Lea Austin, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. That’s even when they were employed full time.

“Early educators are among the lowest-paid workers when we look across any occupation,” she said. It’s primarily a workforce of women, including many women of color who are earning the lowest wages, she said.

The median hourly wage in 2019 for people working in child care was $11.65, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most don’t have health insurance, Austin said. In fact, many rely on public assistance.

More than one-half of child-care workers — most of whom had full-time jobs — were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Medicaid, the Children’s Help Insurance Program (CHIP) or the welfare program known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), according to a 2018 report. Compare that with the overall labor force, in which 21% receive public assistance.

Since the COVID-19 epidemic hit, child-care providers in many states have been encouraged to stay open. It’s an acknowledgement that child-care workers are an essential workforce — albeit one receiving poverty-level wages.

The situation presented a dilemma to many. Local child-care workers — most speaking anonymously — told the Seattle Times that they feared the financial ruin of not having a paycheck but they also feared the risk of infection if they continued to work.

Small children coughed on them, the child-care workers told The Times. Guidelines for disinfecting surfaces weren’t adequate for a child-care setting, they said. Toys can be disinfected, but then children put the toys in their mouths.

Another big issue is a lack of sanitizing equipment and other materials. In New York, child-care providers for essential workers are running out of diapers and disinfectant and have been trying to make their own hand sanitizer, said Kelly Sturgis, executive director of the New York State Network for Youth Success, a network of after-school providers. “A lot are lacking supplies,” she said.

In Atlanta, Whitefoord Inc. runs both a community medical clinic and an early learning center in East Atlanta. The early learning center has been hindered from re-opening because of a lack of supplies.

When Atlanta Public Schools closed on March 16, the Whitefoord Early Learning Center in East Atlanta also shut down because it includes a state supported pre-K program.

The medical staff at the associated Whitefoord Clinic — all of whom are women — had trouble finding child care because of the closures.

“It’s definitely been a real challenge to our clinical team,” said Whitefoord CEO Jean O’Connor. “Our staff has been able to make it work for a couple of weeks.” She’s hoping the early learning center can re-open.

The real holdup is supplies,” she said.

The clinic itself — not only the child- care center — has had trouble getting such basics as masks, hand sanitizer and soap.

In one sense, the Whitefoord child-care staff are lucky. While the center is closed, its pre-K teachers continue to be paid by the state as part of its universal pre-K program. And the organization has funds to pay other staff for a couple of weeks, O’Connor said.

Child-care workers in publicly funded programs do better financially, Austin said. Programs such as Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs see higher wages. “Those are the programs that are continuing to pay staff [while closed] and staff have access to their health benefits,” she said. “That represents just a fraction of the workforce. Most people are working in small, independently owned businesses.”

Small operators desperate

Many of those businesses are on the brink of failing, she said. A March survey of 6,000 child-care providers — more than half in family child-care homes and about one-third operating daycare centers — found that 47% said they could not survive a closure of two weeks.

Rixa Evershed is early education director at an Olympia, Wash., nonprofit, Nature Nurtures Farm. She runs the organization’s early learning center, which serves 55 children. “I’m working to try to save our program,” she said. The early learning center, like many centers, saw a drop in enrollment as people stayed home from work. It reached out to local hospitals, police and firefighters to offer its services to them.

There were few takers. “We were so surprised,” she said.

Evershed’s best guess is that people have found home-based child care. “So many people were getting laid off that there was a community support structure,” she said. People turned to friends and relatives for child care, she thinks.

Child-care providers, who operate on very small profit margins, see the damage growing. Funding supports are necessary to keep these operators from folding, Evershed said. If they fold, what will happen when the pandemic ends and there are no spots for child care? How will people go back to work?

The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus included some funds for states, but states will determine how to use the money.

Some are doing more than others on child care. North Carolina just instituted hazard pay of up to $300 a month for child-care workers.

“Either we’re going to finally get the recognition we deserve or we’re going to implode and cease to exist,” Evershed said.

Stell Simonton is an Atlanta journalist. Her work has appeared the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Youth Today, among others.

This story was co-published with Microsoft News. Microsoft News and Spotlight partnered on a package of stories and long-form videos, Poverty Next Door, late last year.

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