An early education system for a post-pandemic world

Existing shortcomings have only been magnified by coronavirus

WHEN FAMILIES WITH children emerge from home or fall back from the frontlines, the world will be very different. Parents looking for work or trying to keep our jobs will confront a decimated economy, and we will find fewer early education or after school programs to help care for and nurture our kids.

Before the spike in unemployment caused by the COVID-19 economic collapse, more than 70 percent of children in Massachusetts had all adults in their household participating in the workforce, making up about a third of all employees.

But even then it was challenging. Massachusetts has the second highest cost of child care in the nation, swallowing 39 percent of earnings in a typical Massachusetts family. For parents who work odd or unpredictable hours, or plan around the agrarian school calendar, child care is a decades-long, fraught, expensive patchwork.

The Department of Early Education and Care, on whose oversight board I sit, licenses 236,000 early education and after school program slots for the Commonwealth’s children. Each day, it also subsidizes access for about 54,000 of the state’s most vulnerable – children who are in the foster care system, homeless, in families receiving temporary financial assistance, and a small number who receive subsidized care based on family income alone. The COVID-19 crisis will swell these ranks with more children experiencing abuse, homelessness, and poverty, making access to high-quality early education and care programs more important, and more difficult. Even now, there are over 20,000 on a waitlist; only about 36 percent of all low-income children under age five receive subsidies.

These subsidies, funded predominantly by a federal block grant, do not cover the cost of quality early learning or the coordination of comprehensive supports like food, clothing, diapers, or health and mental services that growing numbers of Massachusetts families need. Many of the large and small non-profit programs willing to accept underpayment fundraise to fill gaps, and even for-profit programs that rely exclusively on family fees struggle with operating costs and retaining qualified staff, paying notoriously low wages.

These tenuous compromises between access for children, quality of learning experiences, pay for educators, and costs to parents and taxpayers exact a toll. The US Chamber of Commerce looked at the economic impact of lost earnings, productivity, and revenue due to child care breakdowns in several states. Pennsylvania, for example, loses $3.47 billion each year. And these figures do not account for the incalculable – the failure to adequately support the healthy development of our children, depriving us of their potential and hollowing out our ideal of equal opportunity for all.

Researchers who study the relationships between child development, poverty, and learning point to two main reasons that low socioeconomic status tracks with diminished educational and life choices: less access to the resources and opportunities that promote learning, and greater exposure to toxic stresses that persistently activate the “fight or flight” response and harm development. The sudden and uneven impacts of COVID-19 – layoffs, homeschooling, family stress, disease – are deepening existing inequalities due to poverty and racism, and broadening the number of children experiencing risks.

Early education and care programs counter these harms by strengthening families and supporting children’s healthy social and educational development through relationships, learning experiences, resources, and opportunities. High quality programs can transform children’s lives, and the lives of their children, cultivating potential and reinvigorating opportunity. Even now, as the Commonwealth’s 8,700 child care and after school programs are closed for all but limited emergency care, many programs are connecting children and families to food, diapers, parenting supports, social services, and learning activities.

Emergency care for the children of essential workers — most of whom are women — also reinforces how critical care is to the overall economy and to families trying to work, or return to work. Nationally, 20 percent of major employers report responding to the COVID-19 crisis by providing employees with “back up dependent care.” But what happens when the emergency is over? What options will be available to families? The federal CARES Act provides only 7 percent of what is needed to “bail out” the industry that makes it possible for adults to provide for their children, and all other industries to operate.

If we are going to restore our economy, now and in the future, it will require a functioning system of affordable, accessible, high quality early education and care. Massachusetts’s system of early education and care cannot go back to how it was because what prevailed was not tenable for underserved children, strapped families, exploited educators, fragile programs, and ill-served employers and taxpayers. And it will not survive COVID intact.

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What we need now is a child- and family-centered approach that makes early education and care a part of the social safety net that gets people back to work and increases the resiliency of our current and future workforce. It will take partnership between government, employers, programs, and families; it will take investment in professional development and wages for educators; it will have to combine high quality education with the structures and comprehensive supports necessary for families getting back on their feet, or back into the workplace.

Massachusetts can do this. Despite decades of underinvestment, we have many exemplary programs, educators with expertise and dedication to cultivate our next generation, a record of effective high quality pre-kindergarten in some of our highest needs communities, and growing momentum from leaders in the philanthropic, business, and innovation communities. To rebuild the economy, and meet the needs of children and families in the COVID era, we will need to build a stronger system of early education and care.

Joan Wasser Gish is a parent and member of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care. She works at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development.