This blog is part of a series on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the child care industry and children and families in Onslow County.
The early childhood sector has long suffered from chronic underinvestment and structural challenges—but with the COVID-19 pandemic, the true instability of our nation’s child care system has been exposed. For years, analysts and advocates have shared reports documenting that American child care is underfunded, underresourced, overburdened, and fragile, and in 2020, families, educators, and policymakers across the country have witnessed its collapse.
The average early educator earns just $11.65 an hour and approximately 50 percent of child care workers rely on public assistance to make ends meet. In Onslow County, more than 68 percent of families live in a child care desert and these supply shortages disproportionately impact women, who most often assume caregiving responsibilities.
To effectively overhaul child care, there must be a shift toward professionalizing the industry and providing all educators with a generous living wage, health care benefits, and a safe, positive environment to support the next generation—both during and post-pandemic.
The COVID-19 Response
On September 4, 2020, the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 passed by the NC General Assembly provided $35 million for operating grants to early child care programs—and while the funding is vital—this one-time investment is unlikely to cover more than one to two months of bonus and retention payments, according to NC Policy Watch.
The bill also offered $8 million in child care assistance payments for parents, an amount that is projected to only serve about 1,300 children for one year. However, a study by NC Early Education Coalition found there are at least 14,000 low-income families on the waitlist for child care subsidies in North Carolina.
Despite federal aid, child care centers across the country are struggling to stay afloat: more than 50 percent nationwide are “losing money every day that they remain open,” and 2 out of 5 child care providers say that they are covering costs by using personal savings or charging supplies to their own credit cards. Data from NC Child Care Resource & Referral Council discovered that, from February 2020 to February 2021, 10 percent of child care centers and homes in Onslow County closed.
North Carolina data from August 2020 found statewide enrollment in child care programs had fallen and many were serving 30 percent fewer children than pre-pandemic. This decline of enrollment paired with an increase of operating costs by nearly 50 percent creates a dire situation for child care centers trying to keep their doors open: 91 percent are paying additional costs for cleaning supplies, 73 percent are paying additional costs for PPE, and 60 percent are paying additional costs for staff/personnel in an environment in which 69 percent say recruiting and retaining qualified staff is more difficult now than it was before the pandemic.
Keeping Educators Safe
In addition to the lack of relief, early child care providers have struggled with basic safety precautions. While K-12 teachers have been prioritized for vaccines, early child care providers have been left out of the vaccine rollout in certain states.
In North Carolina, early child care providers—along with teachers, principals, bus drivers, and custodial and cafeteria staff—became eligible for the vaccine on February 24, although not all are interested in receiving the vaccine currently. In a survey conducted by One Place of 362 staff members working in early education, 39 percent said they would not get a vaccine due to lack of full FDA approval, 39 percent said they do not want it, 25 percent were unsure, 21 percent had received the vaccine, and 14 percent want it but weren’t scheduled yet.
In Onslow County, high-quality child care is the true backbone of economic development and growth in our community, and we are dedicated to advocating for the professionalism of child care—including a livable wage and health benefits for all educators, not just those in publicly-funded programs or Early Head Start. A return to “normal” child care as it once was is certainly not enough.
Early educators are the future of our community and we strive for a world where child care educators are treated as the professionals they are. To learn more about the resources we offer for child care professionals, visit here.