Our Insights

Honor The Essential Early Childhood Workforce During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Some Examples And New Ideas

Billowing across the tide of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic is a beginning tidal wave of need for emergency child care, especially for essential workers and low-income and homeless families.

Child care, Head Start, Pre-K and other educators and leaders, in close personal (if the child care program is not yet closed) or telephone/digital (if closed) contact with parents, are acutely aware of the stresses on families now.

They may gear up to provide safe emergency care, with appropriate guidance from public health authorities and the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness, accessible online to all sectors of the early care and education community. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/physical-health/article/coronavirus-prevention-response


Supporting essential workers, including the health care workforce who are on the frontlines, with the equally essential early care and education workforce—and keeping all in both workforces as healthy as possible– drives urgent policy thinking as well as programmatic adaptations.

Every governor needs to make one critical policy decision right now: pay the early care and education workforce right now. Keep them paid during the entire pandemic.

California, led by an enlightened governor and state legislature, has just enacted a bill assuring payment to state-funded child care programs as well as schools during school closures. Clarifying guidance will be issued by the Child Development Division of the California Department of Education (CDE) very shortly. Many of us hope that it will apply to family child care homes as well as centers.

California’s state legislators and public servants, Giannina Perez in the Office of the Governor; Tony Thurmond and Sarah Neville-Morgan at CDE; and Kris Perry at the California Health and Human Services deserve widespread gratitude as they and their teams grapple with the challenging issues.


The federal Office for Head Start (OHS) has already committed to pay salaries and benefits during closures of Head Start and Early Head Start for center-based, family child care home-based and home visiting staff. Dr. Deborah Bergeron, the OHS director, is to be commended for this decision, undoubtedly advocated also by the National Head Start Association.


The public is about to become aware of just how essential the early care and education (ECE) workforce is. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, a prophetic voice in the early child field, has called this out for decades.


Dr. Marcy Whitebook, founder of the Center, now led by Dr. Lea Austin, illustrates the impact of the current crisis vividly:



Continued compensation will help limit the spread of the virus, by allowing more of this essential workforce to serve children and families from socially isolated homes or from safe early care and education facilities, in concordance with public health authority guidance.

It also frees the typically highly altruistic human beings who are the heart and soul of the early childhood workforce to function in other ways.

First it allows them to care for their own children and family members-a moral right.

But is good for all families in the communities they serve. Early childhood educators, in both family child care homes as well as centers, often function as trusted leaders and advisors to parents about children.

Even if they have decided to be at home during closures or “sheltered at home” (quarantined) by public order, for example, compensated early educators may be able to function as home-based educators and informal supports to parents and children via telephone and teleconferencing.

They can use (or develop) new tech-based modes of communication with stressed parents and children. They can invent other ingenious ways to adapt to both rippling new quarantine measures and the needs of children and families.

To do that, they need to be freed from the paralyzing worry of personal financial collapse.

They have already dedicated their lives to children and families–and foregone higher wages in almost every other sector to do so. Making close to poverty levels historically, they should be supported as the resourceful, resilient and altruistic workforce that they are.

In fact, as my colleague Ann Segal, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and I have long discussed, this workforce should have express enrollment in Medicaid and the Women Infants and Children (WIC) programs. And be empowered to help parents do the same.

Rapid enrollment in food stamps (SNAP) and other food voucher programs should also be explored (gratitude to Ann Segal for this idea). During this emergency, states could initiate temporary fast track eligibility for these federal programs.

The benefits to the community at large? This essential workforce would be kept healthier and out of the overwhelmed hospital emergency rooms and wards.

This is the workforce that supports all other workforces. Time to honor that. Finally.


Peggy Daly Pizzo, M.Ed., Ed.M.is the director of the Early Learning Project at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She is a former White House advisor on early care and education policy. Her current policy research focuses on systems-building between health, mental health and early care and education services.

Nothing that is said here should be attributed to either the Stanford Graduate School of Education or Stanford University.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.