BySam Evans , Violeta Gutkowski
Early childhood education (ECE) and child careEarly childhood care and education include various types of programs, such as center-based child care, home-based or family child care, private preschool, public preschool, Head Start and Early Head Start. This article focuses on child care centers and family child care providers. are essential pieces of America’s economic puzzle. Working families rely on ECE to aid in their children’s overall care while they are working, participating in training opportunities and advancing their careers.
For employers, it affects their ability to recruit and retain skilled workers. For children, it’s a system that can play a significant role in their mental advancement, as well as their social, emotional and economic well-being. StudiesHeckman, James J., and Karapakula, Ganesh. “The Perry Preschoolers at Late Midlife: A Study in Design-Specific Inference.” (May 2019). NBER Working Paper #25888. have also linked ECE to increased rates of high school graduation, college attendance and greater workforce participation.Campbell, Frances A.; Wasik, Barbara H.; Pungello, Elizabeth; Burchinal, Margaret; Barbarin, Oscar; Kainz, Kirsten; Sparling, Joseph J.; Ramey, Craig T. “Young Adult Outcomes of the Abecedarian and CARE Early Childhood Educational Interventions.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 23 (March 28, 2008): 452–66.
In the St. Louis region, attention is especially focused on ECE as COVID-19 has underscored its importance and fragility—particularly for providers that serve low- to moderate-income (LMI), Black and Hispanic families. St. Louis has 22,224 children under 6 years old with a total licensed capacity of 10,559 and a total licensed exempt capacity of 1,282, thus presenting a service gap of 47%.Data are based on https://stage.worklifesystems.com/missouri?county=St%20Louis%20City (PDF) and the authors’ calculations. Understandably, parents may also choose options other than an ECE.
We garnered insights from four ECE providersInterviewed providers include: Cortaiga Collins of Good Shepherd Preschool and Toddler Center in St. Louis, Samantha Cross and LaDonna Smith of Little Precious Angels Childcare in St. Louis, Ellicia Lanier of Urban Sprouts Child Development Center in University City, Mo., and Tina Mosley of Our Daycare & Learning Center in St. Louis. serving LMI communities about the impact COVID-19 is having on their sector. These findings revealed several major challenges for providers—deficiencies in public support and investments, decreases in capacity and demand for services, increases in operational costs and need for cleaning supplies, and added anxiety and trauma among children and their communities.
Though anecdotal, these insights align with findings from a July 2020 survey (PDF) of child care providers in the U.S. by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (out of 5,000 respondents, 258 were from Missouri):
As noted in a 2019 IFF report (PDF), St. Louis had the lowest ECE provider reimbursement rates in the country before the pandemic. According to Ellicia Lanier at Urban Sprouts Child Development Center in University City, Mo., though infant costs can total up to $19,000 a year, the state reimbursement is only $8,000 a year for her center. This presents a challenge to providers that are already operating on thin margins and forces them to find additional funding to cover the full cost of care. As a recent needs assessment (PDF) by Child Care Aware of Missouri stated, the average cost to provide care to a toddler is $16,120 per year.
In addition, if a child is receiving a subsidy, the state will only cover up to five absences per child each month.
“If I had to close for more than five days, I would not receive any compensation, so a closure would severely impact me. Even though my payroll expense would decrease, all other expenses will remain the same. If I had to shut down more than once due to COVID-19, I don’t think that I will be able to survive,” said Cortaiga Collins of Good Shepherd Preschool and Toddler Center in St. Louis. “This creates unnecessary hardship for providers that are trying to provide high-quality early childhood education,” Collins said.
The majority of providers we spoke to applied and received a PPPL through the Small Business Administration. These loans allowed centers to remain open while helping providers retain their staff and purchase PPE for the few children who remained in their care. However, if these funds are depleted, there could be a substantial reduction in the city’s total child care supply, leaving a large fraction of children unserved.
The CARES Act provided more than $66.5 million to Missouri for child care through the Child Care Development Block Grant, yet only $10 million went to child care facilities. As demand decreased, many of the providers we spoke to are still only operating at half of their capacity and are wondering how they will remain afloat without such subsidies in place through the end of the year. This could result in an even greater blow to LMI families and communities that are eligible for these subsidies and living at or below 138% of the federal poverty level.
On March 23, 2020, both the city of St. Louis and the county issued shelter-in-place orders, causing most ECE centers to close until around June.
“I wake up every day questioning: Am I sacrificing my life for my business, or my business for my life?” said Tina Mosley, director of St. Louis-based Our Daycare & Learning Center. The center would ultimately see itself transitioning from 100% capacity to 40% due to the pandemic.
There was also concern about COVID-19’s impact on children and families at the Urban Sprouts Child Development Center. “Families were disjointed from their everyday normal, and we saw parents losing jobs and children not being able to be with their caregivers. We saw a little bit of trauma. As educators who better understand the neuroscience behind what is happening when we weren’t in session, there was a real gap in how children connected. We did our best to do virtual learning, but it just wasn’t the same. It was important for us to open back up in some capacity,” said Lanier.
A briefing (PDF) from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that as shelter-in-place orders lifted, more ECE providers reopened, but not without additional costs due to CDC guidelines: smaller group sizes, increased sanitization supplies and PPE.
The new regulations were cited by providers as major cost burdens for their already cash-strapped businesses.
“Payroll costs greatly increased due to limited group size restrictions and the need for two staff members to a classroom,” said Cortaiga Collins of Good Shepherd Preschool and Toddler Center in St. Louis.
As the region pivots from response to recovery, providers are hopeful that this sets the tone for a stronger and more integrated system. While measures to reduce COVID-19 exposure and PPE have become the new norm, these have complicated providers’ budgets, which have also been hindered by a lower demand for services. The pandemic’s implications on the future supply and availability of child care can have serious results on ECE funding and the LMI communities that rely on their services.