As parents and caregivers of children weigh their options for child care in the aftermath of COVID-19, they often find themselves wondering how scarcity impacts their expectations of quality. One quality-assessment tool in place in North Carolina for more than two decades is the state’s star-rated licensing system. This blog addresses the status of that system as the state’s child-care providers move beyond the pandemic and into a vastly altered landscape.
“The struggle is real.” When more than 20 child-care providers gathered at the Onslow County Public Library earlier this summer to meet with state staff members for a discussion of the system for quality assessments, that’s what one local center manager wanted the visiting researchers to hear.
While COVID-19 had far-reaching impacts on the economy once it began to spread in southeastern North Carolina in 2020, few sectors were hit harder than child care.
As the pandemic tightened its grip, child-care providers found themselves under assault on many fronts, especially by the danger posed to public health, including their own. Enrollment showed substantial reductions as families stayed home, and kept their children at home, during widespread workplace changes that included shutdowns.
COVID also elevated what was already a pressing industry concern by reducing the number of qualified workers and throwing the issue of low pay for child-care workers into sharper focus. With a dwindling number of available workers, centers across the state began to shut their doors. Studies found that among the providers hardest hit were those who were offering the highest level of care.
Even as North Carolina communities began to emerge from the pandemic, available spaces for child care were slow to return. And as child-care providers struggled to rebound, the COVID-exposed issues facing their industry did not go away.
State legislators have debated how to help the industry recover financially, with the debate intensifying as pandemic-related federal aid approaches expiration at the end of 2023. Providers have seen their costs skyrocket, parents are paying more than ever, and workers are concerned that the momentum for raising their pay could be lost in the shuffle.
The star-rated licensing program, also known as the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), basically has been put on hold since 2020 as child-care programs have tried to stay afloat. The state’s Child Care Commission and the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education have held webinars and in-person meetings such as the one in Jacksonville to decide what changes are needed in the program before it is fully reimplemented.
Star ratings: the basics
The state’s star rating system was introduced in 2000 and revised in 2005. According to the official website maintained by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, “It allows child-care programs to be recognized for the higher quality care that it was already providing. In the previous system, the program’s individual strengths were not highlighted.”
For a child-care program to be evaluated for a star rating, it must show a history of compliance with the state’s minimum requirements for licensed facilities over an 18-month period. In its current form, the star rating reflects the child-care program’s quality in two specific areas—staff education and daily program environment.
To receive a star rating, programs must undergo an assessment by a child-care consultant as well as turn in self-assessments. The evaluations of staff education reflect the levels of education and experience of staff; while program standards reflect quality of care, child-adult interactions, classroom materials, indoor and outdoor equipment, indoor and outdoor space, and staff-to-child ratios.
Under the current system now under review, up to seven points are awarded in each of the two specified areas (staff education and daily programming); an additional quality point can be awarded for meeting standards beyond the usual assessments, such as reduced staffing ratios and extra training. The number of quality points determine the program’s star rating, starting with 1-3 points for one star up to 13-15 points for five stars. The assessment period generally is every three years.
Child-care licenses must be posted and visible. If a program is part of the star-rating program, visitors and prospective consumers can look at the license to see how many stars have been awarded and a breakdown of staff education and programming points that a center has earned. The North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council recommends, “If a program has low points and a low star rating, ask why and find out what their plans are to improve quality.”
Legislation passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2021 and signed by Gov. Roy Cooper provided temporary relief to child-care programs working to maintain their ratings while dealing with staffing shortages and other complications of COVID. That relief included a “hold harmless” period providing delays in state assessments and inspections. It also granted relief to help child-care providers who had to replace lost employees with caregivers with lesser educational backgrounds.
What lies ahead
The Child Care Commission and the Division of Child Development and Early Education will report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services on the possible overhaul of the star-rating system. The recent statewide sessions with providers will figure prominently in the findings, said Kimberly Mallady, who presided over the Jacksonville meeting representing the Child Care Commission.
“There have been a lot of common threads that have come out throughout all the different meetings.” Mallady said. “A lot of it is about education requirements and compensation concerns.”
Among other concerns expressed at the Jacksonville meeting were lack of access to professional development, the fairness and accuracy of using a one-day assessment for a rating that covers three years, and a need to emphasize personal interactions over the availability of materials. Some participants also expressed concern that some material requirements drive up costs more than they improve quality. Another point mentioned was that few parents are informed about quality ratings.
Except for some new facilities, the “hold harmless” period that calls for monitoring of health and safety without full-scale assessments has been extended by the legislature through June 2024. Planning is underway for a restart of the QRIS, which will include a year of preparation before the program fully resumes, which is expected by 2025 but could extend for some facilities until 2026 or 2027. Meanwhile, any changes that are made in the star-rating system must be approved by the legislature and may be implemented as the assessments resume.
What else to know
Beyond this basic information regarding how the star-rating program works, there are many details about the state’s assessment and licensing requirements that parents and other caretakers may want to learn about. The Child Care Resources and Referral team (CCR&R) at One Place (910-938-0336; www.oneplaceonslow.org) and the state’s website (www.ncchildcare.nc.gov) are valuable resources.
For example, the state recognizes different types of child care for licensing and rating purposes. Regulations and ratings vary according to the type of program under review, such as whether it is a licensed child-care center or a licensed family child-care home. Under state law, religious-sponsored programs can operate with only a certificate of minimum compliance unless they choose to apply for a star rating, as some do. Parents and other interested parties can also use the state’s website to review the last three years of a child-care program’s compliance history, including past complaints or investigations and any violations that may have occurred.
At the center of this “perfect storm” has been the team at One Place, which has provided Child Care Referrals and Resources (CCR&R) since its origins as Onslow County’s Partnership for Children. Not only does One Place offer free guidance to families and others seeking child-care services, it works closely, also without charge, with local child-care centers, family child-care homes and other providers to maintain ample and viable options while maintaining high-quality care for the community’s most precious resource, its children.
One Place staff members urge parents and others to pay attention to a center’s star-rated license, but they also caution that interested parties should understand the ratings program’s limitations. They want star ratings to be something more than the product of a static checklist, noting that results can change over the time that passes between assessments because of factors such as staff turnover.
Parents and other caretakers need to get involved, especially with the ratings system in something of a holding pattern. Parents should do additional research and ask their own questions, with personal site visits playing an important role. Details on compliance issues provided online by the North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education can fill in the blanks of information that parents may find helpful.
One point remains clear: Parents and child-care providers alike see value in the state assessments of quality of care. “I have been doing this for 22 years,” said the child-care manager who spoke up about the industry’s struggles. “I don’t want to lose a star.”