This blog is the first in a series on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the child care industry and children and families in Onslow County.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the child care industry as a whole, dramatically affecting the lives of child care workers in Onslow County and beyond. When the pandemic began to spread in early March 2020, most child care centers and home-based care providers nationwide closed their doors, causing more than 370,000 members of the workforce to leave the field.
Although Onslow County saw 23 percent of facilities close in April 2020, over the course of the past several months, 90 percent of child care facilities and centers have reopened their doors and workers have returned to the workforce. However, many early educators still face challenging working conditions and greater stressors than ever before, leading to concerns about how to stay healthy and safe.
The pandemic has laid bare the true instability of the child care ecosystem in America, and in particular, its negative and harmful impact on child care workers. To support the future of child care, large-scale change is necessary: Child care workers must make a fair, living wage and have access to the benefits they deserve.
Rising Costs and Challenging Work Environments
As early educators have returned to work, they’ve faced a harsher, more challenging environment. An initial analysis from the Center for American Progress found that many providers saw a 47 percent increase in operating costs during the pandemic; for programs that serve 3- and 4-year olds, this number was even higher.
In North Carolina, 70 percent of child care centers noted substantial, additional costs due to the pandemic: Staffing (72 percent), cleaning supplies (92 percent), and personal protective equipment (81 percent). This increase in operating costs has put early educators in a difficult position: In June 2020, one in four early childhood educators in North Carolina reported that they applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of programs indicated that they had or will engage in layoffs, furloughs, and/or pay cuts.
Why has the pandemic driven the cost of care so much higher? Personnel expenses have been at the top of the list. Because care centers cannot maintain proper staff-to-child ratios with “floating” staff, they have been forced to hire new staff members to support pickup, drop-off, and other health screening procedures brought on by the pandemic.
Early Educators Are At Risk
During the pandemic, thousands of early educators, primarily women, and women of color, have put themselves and their families at risk by continuing to serve their communities—all with low pay and lack of benefits.
From May 2020 to April 2021, North Carolina has reported 1,420 COVID-19 cluster cases associated with child care providers. In a December 2020 report, 4 child care facilities in Onslow County specifically had ongoing clusters, affecting over 20 staff members and children.
The worry about getting sick is further heightened by the financial landscape for many early educators. With an average of just $11.65 paid per hour, these poverty-level wages are further compounded by a lack of access to vital support for physical and mental health—including health insurance and paid sick time off in the case of contracting COVID-19. According to a 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute, only 15 percent of child care workers receive health insurance sponsored by their employer. In other occupations, 50 percent of workers receive health insurance.
Although child care in America is notoriously underfunded and overburdened, the pandemic has caused a very real danger to child care workers and forced many workers to choose between a paycheck or their own health and safety. Additionally, the emotional impact of the pandemic on early educators is yet to be fully understood. An August 2020 survey from Nebraska found that almost all providers were experiencing symptoms of stress, including changes in sleep quality, difficulty concentrating, feelings of social isolation, and anxiety about the future.
To adequately provide early educators with the support they so desperately need, large-scale infrastructure changes as well as federal-, state-, and local – funding is absolutely vital. As part of the American Rescue Plan, $39 billion in funding to the child care industry will be released this year—a positive step forward in providing child care providers with the funding they need to keep their doors open—but we know that proper reform will take additional time and coordination with policymakers, organizations, and more.
At One Place, our Child Care Resource and Referral Program educates parents and caregivers on high-quality licensed and regulated early education centers, providing information on available options in Onslow County. We also provide early educator training and support.
To learn more, click here: https://www.oneplaceonslow.org/for-parents-and-early-educators/