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From collapse to future imaginaries: Child Care and Early Education in an era of COVID-19

By Lacey Peters, Beth Blue Swadener, & Marianne Bloch

In these early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers’ work is being acknowledged in multiple ways, as parents take on home-schooling roles and spend long hours with their children. Few would question whether largely public school teachers should be paid as they work from home to provide online experiences, materials and support to children and families. As early childhood education and care (ECCE) scholars, we advocate for a more inclusive definition of “teachers” – one that includes those who care for and educate young children (birth-5 years).

Especially in these challenging times, we need to raise questions about the currently fragmented, U.S. child care sector, such as how care and education work is [mis]understood and [mis]represented, or whether such work is deemed essential work, (e.g. when caring for children of health professionals and first responders). Just as other aspects of society are being reimagined for post-pandemic transformative opportunities, we believe that the early childhood care and education sector should have a national and state “re-set button” and the opportunity to engage both pragmatic and utopian imaginaries for our community and nation.

Early childhood educator/caregivers’ work in a largely private, underfunded sector is inherently precarious. Like others in small businesses, child care staff are losing jobs as their centers close. Policy expert, Helen Blank predicts a pending collapse of the current system. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reports that at least half of the child care providers who responded to a survey (developed in response to the public health crisis) fear their programs could not withstand a temporary closure. In addition, many educator/caregivers will leave and have left this already high turnover sector. When or if programs re-open, providers will have to absorb the hidden costs of meeting updated public health and safety guidelines, including smaller group sizes which affect revenues.

Essential not expendable” is the way child care advocate, Abbi Kruse, describes this sector. Currently, child care for “essential workers” is considered vital, and also “expendable” (given the health risks and lack of guaranteed income for educators if programs temporarily close).  Moreover, teachers/caregivers are still laboring under the same marginal pay and benefits and lack professional recognition. Centers that remain open report having little Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), with the difficulty practicing social distancing with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

While all nations have had to develop rapid responses to the care and education of essential workers’ children, some have far more centralized early childhood policy and public financing and provision, while others, including the United States, do not. The US has a stratified, segregated, and patchwork approach to provision of education and care for children from birth to five years. Without comprehensive child care subsidies, the burden of care is seen as a private, family responsibility. Many families have struggled to pay tuition for children even when they were employed. Going forward, parents/families will face even greater challenges finding and paying for care, given closures and loss of incomes. Even where current low-income subsidies are available, the income requirements are so low and the reimbursement rates fall short of tuition that they become even more reliant on private, extended network of friends and families.

Early childhood programs and positions are stratified by race and class while most teachers/caregivers are women. Social habits of equating “mothering,” “babysitting” and the education and caregiving of young children contribute to the construction of workers as “essential but expendable.” Teachers/caregivers are paid an average of $11/hour across the country (below the national poverty level for a family of four), often with little health insurance, and little or no sick leave. Yet, many are multilingual and culturally affluent, not to mention having related credentials and have been teaching and caring for children for many years, embodying a wealth of knowledge about care and education.  We should not casually allow for such a loss of tremendous resources either due to health and welfare or program closures.

From persistent equity issues to future imaginaries

Recognition and acknowledgement of the essential work of early educators/caregivers have been abysmal. Shout outs for teachers rarely include recognition of their educational background, experience, and expertise with infants to 5-year-old children -society’s youngest. As Lark Sontag points out, “Childcare equity is intersectional feminism,” repairing this deeply fractured system requires the dismantling of the systems of oppression that have reinforced the disrespect and devaluation of the women (and men) who have always been essential workers. These issues reflect a lack of understanding and appreciation of care work – the often invisible emotional labor of women – particularly women of color.

Recognition of this work as a profession rather than “babysitting” has long been an issue. In the time of the pandemic, however, this moves to front and center because it directly concerns the nature of “essential” and hazardous work – “hazard pay,” (or lack thereof), the need for health insurance and sick leave, being infected while working, and the lack PPE. Historically women have brought attention to the disrespect, under-compensation, and gross disparities in their daily work. Early childhood workers have fought for pay parity, and other essential benefits. Their calls for change and equity have largely gone unanswered.

Marcy Whitebrook and her colleagues at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment offer a set of recommendations to safeguard essential child care workers from public health risks and  financial ruin. We believe that this is an embodied care sector that provides essential services, and is integral to all human life experiences, from birth onward. We urge the early childhood community and the public writ large to get behind the necessary comprehensive supports required to (re)build, repair, and reimagine this broken system. While we applaud Congressional proposals for up to $100 billion for the child care sector, they uphold the largely fragmented system.

We, therefore, call for a more inclusive and less segregated, and publicly supported child care and early education sector in which socially just policies, anti-bias and anti-oppressive practices prevail.  We imagine spaces that embody respect for the more than human, common worlds, with children and adults learning about environmental justice in everyday experiences. The pandemic has made obvious that we must, with children and families, recognize our global connectedness.

We imagine early childhood as a space in which children are acknowledged as our youngest citizens and their rights are recognized – including their right to consistent caregivers. Teachers/caregivers are recognized, respected, compensated, and cared for – as essential, not expendable. All families have access to safe, affordable, accessible, and “quality” care.

Finally, we concur with the recently released Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education’s (RECE) statement:

Now is the time to maintain stability and ensure that early childhood (infant through school-age) services which have had to close will be able to re-open once the pandemic is under control. Children need consistency and quality care and education. Families will need to return to work confident that their children are well cared for, and early childhood educators will need to find their jobs awaiting them. We cannot afford to lose our qualified early childhood staff. Now is the time to show early childhood education and care personnel that they are an integral and respected workforce.

Lacey Peters is assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Beth Blue Swadener is professor of Justice Studies and Social & Cultural Pedagogy at Arizona State University.

Marianne (Mimi) Bloch is Professor Emerita in the Departments of Curriculum & Instruction and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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