Can early education survive Covid-19 and come back stronger?

A new order

On March 23, Governor Kate Brown ordered many Oregon businesses to close to “flatten the curve” and prevent the spread of Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“The week of Spring Break and the week before that were just wild,” says Savannah Turner, who runs The Nest Playschool in SE Portland, which normally cares for twenty-three infants and toddlers. It took a few days after the order for things to settle down, she says, and to understand that, to stay open at all, she’d have to apply for a state license to provide emergency child care.

It was another in a series of challenges for Turner, who was The Nest’s site manager and lead teacher when its previous owner changed careers in January 2019. “She gave me the choice,” Turner says. “Let the infant and toddler program close with the others, or buy it from her. I think she knew there was no way I’d let it disappear!”

To keep the community of six other teachers and twenty to twenty-five families together, she says, Turner stepped into the new role. Though she never thought she would be an employer, Turner was committed to the field of early childhood care. “I think the best thing anyone can do to make the world better is to start with the very youngest kids and give them the most respectful, quality care possible,” she says.

She’s not alone in that belief. Decades-long research studies show that a foundation of early learning raises the odds for kids’ future successes significantly. Graduation rates go up and incarceration rates drop — producing savings for the whole community of about ten dollars for every dollar invested.

But Covid-19 poses an existential threat to the entire child care industry, and especially small, family-based operations like The Nest, which were already under tremendous economic pressure before the new virus hit.

State of emergency

As a previously operating child care provider, it wasn’t hard for Turner to get the new license — she just had to apply and agree to a new set of rules. Rather than her normal enrollment of twenty-three (with no more than fourteen children present on any given day), she would be limited to ten. She chose to reduce that further, keeping only already enrolled children all of whose parents were required to leave their homes to work in essential roles. That reduced the Nest to an enrollment of only three kids and just two at a time. This led her to reduce staff to just one other teacher. “We’re taking our responsibilities to flatten the curve really, really seriously,” she says.

There were also new exclusion rules and guidance — extending the time a child has to stay home after recovering from a fever from 24 to 72 hours, for example. This would also apply if anyone in the child’s family exhibited certain symptoms, such as coughing, fever, or shortness of breath, associated with Covid-19.

The state also mandated stricter cleaning routines — how to disinfect different surfaces and toys, and how to handle laundry. She complies, but wonders about the impact of some precautions. “These are babies that I’m holding on my body all day,” she says.

Within the first ten minutes of operation under the new rules, she says, “all the kids had coughed in my face. We get so much contact. Toddlers don’t do social distancing.”

Waiting for help

Turner has gotten a lot of information about resources available to help her. The Oregon Early Learning Division (OELD), the Multnomah County Child Care Resource & Referral, her county health liaison, the family child care union (AFSCME Local 132), and community-based organizations like Family Forward, she says, have pointed her toward financial support. These include the Paycheck Protection Program loan and other Small Business Association loans and grants, as well as information about unemployment benefits for teachers.

“All the same things that small businesses across the board are looking at right now,” she says. She’s heard the OELD is working on creating a statewide system to provide free, essential supplies to emergency child care programs, but neither that nor any financial help specifically aimed at child care providers has materialized yet.

Unless help comes soon, Turner fears a long-term impact on child care, locally and nationally. “Most programs cannot afford to close down or severely reduce income for more than a few weeks,” she says. “If we want child care to still exist on the other side, without asking families barred from care to continue paying providers, something big needs to happen!”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) sounded the alarm — a March survey showed over half of child care providers couldn’t weather even the first month of Coronavirus shutdowns. Only 11% reported confidence they’d be able to open again, revealing a deep fragility in the funding model. The K-12 system, funded publicly, can respond to the moment in a way that our child care providers can’t. NAEYC is calling for a fourth federal stimulus package to include $50 billion earmarked for the child-care industry.

For Turner, all this suggests that the current, parent-funded child care system is precarious — even for those able to afford it in the first place, like The Nest’s community of families.

Adjusting to change

For the majority of The Nest’s families who are now keeping their children at home, Turner set up a sliding scale. She asked them to pay a fraction of their normal tuition to keep their child’s spot and help maintain the center through the crisis. Most families pay about a quarter of their normal tuition, while a few continue to pay full price to support the school. “All our families were happy to do it,” Turner says.

Turner was relatively prepared, and able to warn the parents in her program in advance that these changes might be coming. Some other providers with whom she’s connected via a statewide Facebook group, she says, had not planned for a closure. They were given only a few days after the governor’s order to piece together what they were supposed to do, make difficult decisions about whether to remain open as an emergency child care program, and inform families and staff. “I’m fortunate that in my community, our families are privileged enough that many of them can work from home pretty easily,” Turner says. “Though I do know they’re going stir crazy, and really struggling to get their work done with their one-year-old at home.”

To keep her community of teachers, children, and parents connected, Turner has turned to an app called Marco Polo, which lets everyone trade short video clips with each other. “It’s much better than Zoom when you’re working with kids under three,” she says, because the kids can watch the clips over and over. Teachers read stories and sing songs through the videos, while the kids share clips of their pets.

For the five teachers on furlough, Turner did her best to help them with information on unemployment insurance. Some have become temporary nannies for a single family from the school, but even that limited exposure comes with risks for all involved.

“Everybody is very stressed out,” Turner says, although increases in unemployment insurance have reassured the teachers, at least somewhat. More than anything, she says, “everybody really wants to come back to work. I know the teachers are feeling pretty much just as antsy as the kids are, stuck at home.”

A mega-household

Despite the greatly reduced class size and stricter cleaning routine, Turner knows that teachers and children at The Nest are still at risk. The three children they care for have parents who work in hospitals. “We’re preparing ourselves for the inevitability of exposure at school,” she says.

By bringing in even a few children from their homes to the school and back again, she says, “what we’re kind of doing right now is creating one mega-household that is all of us.” And because of the reality of caring for very young children, she knows that if anyone — teacher, parent, or child — gets Covid-19, it will likely infect the others. “I’m feeding them bottles. I’m spoon-feeding them meals. We’re not gonna be able to prevent the spread within our school if someone brings it in.”

And like many residential households, Turner isn’t always able to get all the supplies she needs to comply with recommendations. She’s hopeful the state will deliver the supplies she’s heard about, but for now, she’s almost out of disinfectant wipes, and the bleach she stocked up on at Costco won’t last forever. “I’m going to go through it really quickly,” she says. “I can’t find those things in stores.”

A universal solution

At some point, Covid-19 will subside, and government orders restricting the operations of child care centers and other workplaces will be lifted.

The question is, will there be any solvent early childhood schools left to send our kids to?

Turner says we can’t count on it, if The Nest and others like it are left to struggle through “Stay Home, Stay Safe” on their own. But for her, the virus and the measures we have to take to contain it didn’t create the bad economics of early childhood education out of thin air.

“I think that the system was already pretty broken, and that this whole Covid-19 thing has brought to light the weaknesses in the system,” Turner says. “The fact that we depend on parents to pay, to maintain a child care industry, is not working. And it is really, really not working right now.”

Before any of us had heard of this new coronavirus, Turner had already joined an effort to address the problems plaguing child care. MULTCOINIT-08, “Universal Preschool NOW,” a grassroots campaign, seeks to provide universal preschool to every Multnomah County three- and four-year-old.

MULTCOINIT-08, with its funding from a marginal income tax on Multnomah County’s top 5%, would help all families access the kind of high quality early education and care that preschool provides. The measure would start by providing preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in Multnomah County. Then, following other municipalities — such as Washington, DC, which covers all kids — we can expand from this first step to close the entire care gap for children before kindergarten, including providers like Turner who serves the youngest children.

“Having a system where we get the funds that we need to make high quality programs, with well qualified staff, who are paid well and get benefits, without having to ask for astronomically high tuition, would change the game,” Turner says. “We would be able to offer spaces to families who would usually be priced out of our program.”

MULTCOINIT-08 is set to begin gathering signatures this spring to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Obviously, social distancing and signature gathering are uneasy partners. Turner and the rest of the Universal Preschool NOW organizers remain hopeful they can get the measure to the voters, and that the same pandemic pressuring the community’s child care won’t be allowed to suppress its democracy as well.

“It’s just really bringing to light how much we need a universal system.” Turner says. “Because the universal system could also really help with emergency funding, so people aren’t having to do a patchwork of loans and grants to stay open. The child care industry desperately needs to still exist at the end of this. I hope it doesn’t all fall apart and we don’t have to build it back from scratch. As much as we can, I hope we take this crisis and build something that works better at the end of it. It’s a sort of silver lining that we have.”

The people of Multnomah County, Oregon are ready for free, public, full-year, play-based, high-quality preschool for every child. #UPnow

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