She told me she was afraid her business would not survive. This is the very real fear of a large, local childcare center owner. And there are many others just like her. They are in unknown territory without a survival guide.
COVID-19 will have a silent, but serious impact on an unsuspecting group – our young children. This insidious impact will come through an unexpected gateway – the childcare system.
Quality childcare is essential infrastructure for critical community outcomes – academic readiness, family income, and a viable business workforce. Any loss of this important resource will affect children, their families, businesses, and ultimately our entire society. Our childcare system has taken what may prove to be a fatal blow for many centers. As we have seen, this pandemic is contagious in many ways.
Childcare is a crucial spoke in the wheel of our economy. Employed parents simply cannot work without it. Businesses cannot operate without working parents, and for those who are deemed part of the essential workforce, telecommuting is not an option. Our community cannot function without childcare.
Even prior to COVID-19, affordable, quality childcare was unavailable to most; and now is even more out of reach for low-income families. In September 2019, nearly half of working parents surveyed in Louisiana by Louisiana Policy Institute for Children (LPIC) were forced to either reduce or eliminate work or school hours due to unavailable childcare, and 90% worried about its affordability without subsidized assistance.
Sadly, the reality for Louisiana’s childcare providers means that smaller class sizes required now create an even greater divide between supply and demand. A June 2020 LPIC survey of state-wide providers found that although enrollment was 30% less than in January, 45% of providers, including those that were closed during the survey window, had a waiting list of families hoping to enroll their children. COVID-19 has diminished centers’ maximum capacities. As costs increase to unaffordable rates, that burden falls squarely on the shoulders of working parents, creating a further wedge in the economic divides between household income levels.
Early childhood presents an opportunity for community prosperity. Our human brains achieve their most robust growth during the first five years of life, but preventable learning gaps can begin to show for disadvantaged children around 18 months of age. Ironically, it is only after this time of powerful learning potential that formal education begins.
Children in the United States are entitled to a free and appropriate public education beginning as early as kindergarten. Yet we do not apply this entitlement to perhaps the most critical time for learning – early childhood.
If public education is in fact the great equalizer, then should it not be offered before predictable academic achievement gaps begin? Does it not make more sense to invest in preventing problems rather than trying to fix them later?
Operating with very narrow profit margins at best, childcare centers are now collapsing by the day. The combination of increased cleaning costs and smaller class sizes easily eliminates that margin. With 78% of Louisiana providers predicting that they cannot financially sustain the status quo, the entire childcare industry is on the verge of crumbling. This outcome simply cannot be an option.
Much like our public education system, the solution to the childcare crisis will require local, state, and federal legislation and investment. The fears of that NWLA childcare center owner must not become reality, because her words will be echoed by the families and businesses and communities that are the secondary victims.
Thankfully, there is a growing list of Louisiana partners who refuse to let this happen. According to Nancy Alexander, Director of Northwestern State University Child and Family Network, “the Louisiana Department of Education, the Caddo Parish Commission, the Community Foundation of North Louisiana, and the local business community have committed supports and resources to strengthen childcare centers at a critical time, but much more of this kind of partnership is urgently needed.” Local champions like the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce and North Louisiana Economic Partnership recognize that a thriving childcare system is required for our local economy to improve.
By following their example and working together, we can create the survival guide that is so desperately needed for our children and our community.
Laura Alderman, LPC-S, LMFT, NCC, educator and therapist, is the Founder and CEO of Educational Resources for Families, working to improve outcomes in the areas of early childhood education and student mental health.
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