As vaccines rolled out, mask mandates dropped (though this may be changing as of the time of this publishing), and we collectively breathed a sigh of relief and felt hope that the worst of the pandemic was behind us, the child care sector still hurts and operates in crisis mode. And it’s happening behind closed doors. This post seeks to take you behind these doors to illustrate the current difficult reality and where opportunities exist to support this critical part of Denver’s economic recovery. We will explore workforce challenges, staffing, increases costs of care, isolation, and how these issues play into the current state of early childhood education in Denver, AND, ways we can tackle these issues.
One of the largest current (and pre-COVID) challenges that exists in the ECE workforce is the fact that the field suffers from low compensation, barriers to entering the profession, and a lack of resources to invest in professional growth and development. Additionally, entry into the ECE field is costly both to the individual and to the employer. There are a variety of pre-service processes needed including background checks, fingerprinting, and CPR/First Aid training, and more. Early educators often feel undervalued and sometimes hear people describe their work as babysitting. This perception persists, even though research has shown that 75% of brain development occurs between birth and 3 years of age and early childhood educators play an integral part of this learning.
On top of these pre-existing strains on the ECE workforce, a lack of ECE staff coming back to teach has resulted in a staffing deficit for many programs. This deficit means early childhood programs have families interested in care, but they are unable to staff classrooms that closed during the pandemic; so, child care programs currently have waitlists. Emergency funding assisted in keeping some teachers, but many with health concerns vacated the field and now there is a shortage of qualified work staff.
Another obstacle for the ECE industry is the stress and burnout that ECE teachers are facing. Not only are wages low, but there is a high amount of risk and exposure in this field. ECE teachers were on the front lines during the pandemic caring for the children of health care workers and other essential job positions. Keeping young children socially distanced during the pandemic has been a challenge and has led to a high contagion risk for ECE staff.
Increased costs to providers to maintain the standards that licensing set during COVID and that are still in place as programs recover are significant. This compounds the pre-existing issue in an industry where programs are not able to charge what the true cost of care is to families because families can’t afford to pay the full cost. Programs were generally operating at a loss pre-COVID, and the pandemic has further compounded the financial strain of an already strained industry.
In addition, due to licensing restrictions, teachers have been isolated from other staff as well as the families of the children they serve. The impact of this can be seen in challenging behaviors that are on the rise in ECE settings. Some children were born at the beginning of the pandemic and did not see or interact with other people for almost a year and a half. This isolation has led to speech delays, physical delays, and social-emotional delays for children who were not able to socialize during the pandemic. Children’s Hospital recently sounded an alarm about the depression and mental health of children as they have been impacted by the pandemic. Young children tell us about stress through attention-seeking behaviors, and the ECE field is already not supported enough around social emotional health due to lack of funding.
So, what can we do? Keep reading!
– Let’s start by acknowledging how important child care is in our economic recovery and growth. It allows parents to return to work (or at least focus in more productive and quality-aligned ways). It allows employers in other sectors to rehire and expand their workforce and activities. It gives children critical early learning skills, setting them up for success with school, career, and life goals.
– Let’s continue to advocate for continued and sustained public investment. Child care does not operate as a typical market exchange of goods and services. It’s time to think about it as a public good and rethink the funding pipeline(s) for it. Stimulus and recovery funding is exciting, needed, and significant; however, a one-time deployment will not solve a broken system. Colorado’s passage of Proposition EE and the creation of universal preschool is equally exciting, needed, and significant. However, a birth to five ecosystem solution is really at the core of what is needed.
– Lastly, let’s step up appreciation for the important work of early childhood educators. Let’s champion a worthy wage and ensure that access to benefits is part of the compensation conversation and solution. Let’s thank them for their front-line, heroic yet under-the-radar efforts. Let’s also work to break down barriers to entry and growth within the field, so that passion for the profession isn’t derailed by cost and complexity.