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The child care industry is a failed business model: How the pandemic made it worse for families

A teacher wears a mask as he takes a toddler's temperature. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
A teacher wears a mask as he takes a toddler's temperature. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Throughout the pandemic, child care has been a big challenge for both families and providers.

The omicron surge has made it even harder for child care centers to stay open every day to provide kids and families with consistent, reliable care.

Deidre Anderson, CEO of EarlystART in Kansas City, Missouri, has been facing significant challenges since omicron hit. At one point, she had to close all three of the nonprofit’s early childhood centers. Right now, one of them is closed.

“I have classrooms that are closed due to quarantines, but also classrooms that are closed because we cannot hire the teachers to fill those classrooms,” she says. “I have families that are stressed to the max, as are our staff. And it, quite frankly, is very overwhelming.”

If a kid tests positive for COVID-19, everyone who came in contact with the child within 48 hours of exhibiting symptoms must quarantine for 10 days because children under 5 can’t get vaccinated, Anderson says.

The centers require kids 2 years old and up to wear masks — but it’s difficult to keep masks on young children, she says.

“It’s a lot of lost days of work, a lot of lost days of instruction and care and a lot of unpredictability,” she says. “And for little kids, that is just very hard.”

EarlystART serves more than 300 children at full capacity. The nonprofit fundraises to help families pay for care but its early childhood sector doesn’t have a stable funding basis, Anderson says.

“Unfortunately, we’re compensating teachers at a rate that is much lower than in the K-12 setting. It’s not a competitive wage,” she says. “Teachers are leaving the teaching profession at rapid rates, and in early childhood, it’s at an even more rapid rate.”

Entry-level early childhood workers with high school diplomas earn $13 to $14 an hour depending on their experience — but many people would rather make $15 to $17 an hour at a fast-food restaurant, she says. Lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees earn between $45,000 to $47,000 per year.

With child care centers short-staffed and forced to close due to COVID-19, families face the stress of potentially losing a job or income because there isn’t anyone who can take care of their children, Anderson says. And the disruption of routine creates stress for kids.

In her 30 year career in education and child welfare, Anderson says she’s never felt like she was in “such a political hot box.” EarlystART’s vaccine mandate for staff and mask requirement cause tension between staff and families, she says.

Right now, Anderson is leading EarlystART from home because she just had COVID-19 for the second time.

“Omicron has made it hard for my administrators to want to stay at this,” she says. “They are just completely worn out.”

Anderson wants to see a coordinated effort to address workforce challenges, wage supplements to help retain staff and continued awareness of the struggles organizations like EarlystART face.

“I think people now see that we are infrastructure. We’re like a road or bridge that takes you from one place to the next,” she says. “People see what happens while we’re not able to operate.”

‘We don’t let our farms collapse in a drought’

The U.S. Treasury Department reported last year that the average cost of care is about $10,000 a year per child. But the child care industry also pays low wages.

People need to understand that child care is a business — with a failed business model, says Linda Smith, director of the Early Childhood Development Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The nation needs to rethink whether child care is a shared responsibility, she says.

“We have a product that costs more to produce than most of the customers who need it can afford to pay. It’s that simple,” she says. “You can’t raise the wages of the staff without raising the fees to parents, and they’re tapped out.”

Smith wants Americans to recognize child care as an essential public good that has to be paid for by society at large.

Coming from a military background, Smith experienced how the Department of Defense and parents share child care responsibilities. The DOD puts a significant amount of money into paying child care workers better and ensuring they have the necessary training, she says.

During the pandemic, the federal government invested in stabilization grants for child care. Without that money, child care providers can’t raise wages for staff, she says.

“We don’t let our farms collapse in a drought. We have built-in farm insurance and all kinds of supports to make sure we have food,” she says. “So why don’t we think about child care as needing some kind of a support system that keeps it stable during the worst of times?”

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill, which is stuck in the Senate, included a lot of investment in child care. Smith says the government needs to invest in stabilizing the funding going into child care and ensuring parents can afford it.

To understand why affordable, good child care is an essential part of a strong economy, Smith points to how work is changing in the U.S. right now.

“People — and parents, in particular — want more control over their lives,” she says. “We have got to pay attention to this because they’re not going to go back to work if they don’t have reliable child care.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.