Parents were and are still confronted with a multitude of decisions as they return to work post pandemic after the Governor issued the Safe to Return Order which reopened all businesses in June. For children who are too young to attend school, child care programs are often the go-to solution for parents, in normal conditions. Currently there are 1,481 licensed child care programs in our state. The Mississippi Health Department licenses centers annually using regulations developed through a process involving providers and the Board of Health. As with most regulations regarding group care of children in our state, there is no regulatory provision for the care of children in child care facilities which address the coronavirus. Centers are basically being advised to follow the CDC suggestions for children in group care to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Most child care facilities are privately owned small businesses with less than 15 employees that operate month to month on a shoe string budget with a very small profit margin. They are committed to keeping the children and staff safe, even at extra expense.
The months that parents were sheltering at home due to the Governor’s orders, so were their children. This resulted in the child care facilities taking a major financial hit. Some were able to apply for the Payroll Protection Plan and very few qualified to apply for a small business loan. The Mississippi Department of Human Services is utilizing federal COVID-19 funding for support to child care centers by providing financial support for centers serving children qualifying for child care subsidies and those serving children of first responders. Even with the help provided, the purchase of safety precautions coupled with the decrease in the number of children in each room and reduction in staff, many centers are battling to remain open and offer a quality experience for the children enrolled. Two new funding opportunities for child care programs to access have come from the Mississippi Legislature and the Governor’s Office. These one- time grants will help with the immediate financial crisis, but what about the future?
According to MS Kids Count data, 70% of children under 6 years of age in 2018 had all available parents in the workforce. That is a lot of children who are in need of care in our state, 142,000 to be exact. Child care teachers support the parents who work at jobs that allow us to live a happy and productive life. Without their support, there would be a very unstable workforce, which would result in an unstable economy. Historically, we have given little credit to these most important contributors to the development of our future workforce as well as making sure the workforce of today shows up for work. COVID-19 brought the contribution the child care industry into focus.
Years ago, an early childhood educator, Gwen Morgan, is credited with the phrase she used to describe the situation confronting the child care industry today. Dr. Morgan describes the financial problem as a trilemma or three-legged stool. The first leg is providing quality child care, the second leg of the stool is the provision of adequate wages paid to staff, and the third leg is the inability of programs to charge parents the full cost of care when including the cost of rent, utilities, food and educational supplies. Without even a community thanks for putting their health at risk for caring for children who are often overlooked as asymptomatic carriers of COVID, child care teachers are committed to the children and families they serve. Just as in public schools, child care teachers have gotten COVID-19, whether from children in the center or individuals outside the center. However, centers, just like schools are trying to remain safely open and protective of the children they serve, so workers can remain on the job and the economic stability in a community prevails.
The next 6-9 months are critical in the child care industry in the state. We did not need a pandemic to let us know we have a system that is begging for an overhaul. There are individuals that have spent their lives at all the agencies responsible for the care and education of young children in licensed centers. They are good people trying to make lemonade out of lemons. The conversation we need to have involves state support for pay for teachers just as economic developers have done for workers in other industries and a new respect for child care businesses acknowledging they are in the business of building brains.