As a full-time working mom of a not-quite two-year-old, I have lots of “mom guilt” over leaving my toddler at child care for nine-ish hours each day. I’ve always wished for more time with him and am sad when I think about all the hours he spends at “school”. Last week this all changed suddenly – my husband and I are now working from home and our son’s child care is closed indefinitely.
You could say one positive side of being self-quarantined is more time together – and it definitely is. But it’s not without its challenges. As two full-time working parents, how can we do our jobs and watch our son? The answer is, after one week, we are still figuring it out (and hoping for long naps!).
And while I am grateful for more time together, I am also sad for all that he is missing out on at school, which he loves. His school has been making a real effort to engage with the children. We get tips for activities from his teachers – last week we had a great time adding food coloring to water in ice cube trays so we could “ice paint” later. We talked a lot about colors and later that day we got to paint! This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and finally made the time for.
Staff are also posting videos of themselves reading stories and singing familiar songs on a new YouTube channel; some of them have even enlisted their own kids. My son loves to watch these videos and constantly asks for them (screen time has definitely increased!) On Friday, the school hosted a virtual “Shabbat” (the school is housed at a Temple) that about 90 families and teachers participated in. It was really sweet to see the kids and teachers so excited to see each other. And while I was happy that I was able to participate in my son’s typical Friday routine, I was sad for him about what he was missing out on.
While we are coping, trying to stay connected, and enjoying extra time together, my mind keeps going back to the staff. Before our child care center closed, but when we knew it was a very likely possibility, I wondered (and still do), Will the teachers get paid? I knew I would be stuck paying the big $$ even though the school was closed – it’s in the contract. But would that money go to the teachers? Are they salaried? Or hourly? Do they get benefits?
Child care teachers are some of the lowest paid workers, are disproportionately women of color, and tend not to have paid sick days or vacation. So I hoped (and continue to hope) that these wonderful people who take such good care of my son and 100 other kids each day are still getting paid. I’m inclined to believe that in this case they are – since families are still paying and the staff are staying in contact through videos and messages. But this might be the exception rather than the rule.
What can and should be done to support child care providers, many of whom are dealing with the same new stressors in their daily lives as we are – worries about getting sick and getting groceries and toilet paper, challenges with helping their own children with remote schooling, missing their “kids” who they didn’t get to say good-bye to. It is time for state and federal government to step-up and support child care providers, just as it seems like they will do for airlines. The federal stimulus bill makes some funding available but it may not be enough. Governments can continue to reimburse for child care subsidies even if children are not being served. Doing so will enable centers to continue to pay staff, as well as remain operational (and staffed) so that they are able to reopen immediately as soon as parents are able to return to work. According to CLASP The Office of Head Start issued guidance that staff should get paid and receive benefits even if Head Start centers are closed.
Expanding benefits like paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave can also support child care staff during this time, particularly if they get sick or need to care for a sick family member (or just a young child whose own child care has closed). Expanding SNAP benefits to child care staff who are not getting paid is another useful support, particularly since many are already hovering around the federal poverty level.
And then there are another group of child care teachers and support staff who continue to care for kids, particularly children of health care workers, who are putting their health at risk. What can and should be done to support them? This includes family home child care providers—paid and unpaid, licensed and unlicensed–who are more likely to care for infants and toddlers. All of them need guidance on how best to safeguard their own health and the health of those they serve. The sooner child care and public health agencies issue joint standards and advice the better. Infants and toddlers do not understand keeping social distance. It seems likely we will need to reduce the number of children per caregiver to increase safety for care providers and the children of essential workers.
This will not be cheap. Infant care is already expensive. In New Jersey, child care licensing permits up to three infants and toddlers per adult in family child care homes and up to four children under 18 months per caregiver in a center and six between 18 and 30 months. Current costs in New Jersey for infant care are about $1,300 per month in a center, less for family child care. What happens if we reduce the ratio to 2 to 1? If we paid staff $15/hour and allow 25% for additional labor costs (e.g., mandatory benefits) the monthly labor cost alone would be $1,625 per child. Clearly, limiting ratios to increase safety will be feasible only if there are increased public subsidies to help support this policy.
Now is the time to act. Now is the time to support and protect those who devote their lives to the learning, development, health, and safety of our kids while we go to work. This crisis puts a spotlight on how crucial child care teachers and support staff are to the economy – many people (including me) could not be productive members of the workforce without relying on child care. As we work to put supports in place for essential workers’ child care, let us remember that child care teachers themselves—in homes and centers—are essential to the economy and our children. Supports and esteem for them should not be temporary.
Dr. Allison Friedman-Krauss is an assistant research professor with the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.