Pandemic underscores the importance, inequities of child-care system
Note: Let's Grow Kids' board member Lynette Fraga co-authored this Op-Ed with Jackie Bezos.
Janine, a medical assistant at an urgent-care facility, contracted COVID-19 in March along with her husband, 20-month-old daughter, mother, father and brother, who shared an apartment near her daughter’s child-care center in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Janine was pregnant and gave birth during the pandemic while positive with COVID-19.
Confined to their small apartment with a newborn to care for, Janine noticed a difference in her older daughter’s behavior when her child-care center was closed. “She started acting angry and bored at home, throwing tantrums on the floor. Now that she’s back at child care, she’s being stimulated completely all day, and she is speaking way more. The care is amazing because she’s learning how to do different things, how to share, and she’s developing emotionally.”
Janine is not alone. Parents who have lost their child care during the pandemic report that their children are significantly more fearful and fussy than those who have not lost child care, according to a weekly national survey of households with children ages 5 and under conducted by the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oregon.
This emphasizes the importance of what professionals in the early-childhood field have always known: Child-care providers and educators play a critical role in supporting and partnering with families to further their child’s development.
Mariah and Sandra, both essential workers in New York, call the child-care center their 19-month-old son attends “a complete lifesaver.” They know that child-care resources are critical for families to thrive, which has been underscored by the pandemic. “We trust him being there, they’re taking all of the precautions that they need to take, paying attention to him and giving him what he needs. Our lives would be completely different without that.”
Research on child development shows the first five years of life is a critical period of development when the brain develops most rapidly. Children are laying the foundation for lifelong health, learning and behavior, and building social-emotional skills that will support them in school and life. Child Care Aware of America has partnered with Vroom, a global early childhood initiative of the Bezos Family Foundation, to provide free, science-based resources to parents and child-care programs to boost children’s learning and support healthy brain development.
These rich early-learning experiences and connections between early-childhood programs and parents are key to both child and family well-being — especially with the uncertainty and even trauma that the current world reflects.
The most important factor for spurring healthy brain development in this time is the quality of interactions between young children and the people around them.
Child-care providers know the early years are a key driver in providing opportunities that optimize the multiple dimensions of children’s learning: cognitive, social and emotional. Their efforts are not only building young brains — they’re building the foundation for our collective future.
Today, child-care providers are putting their own, and their families’, health at risk by serving as essential workers as states reopen. The lack of attention to the health and safety of child-care workers, and the lack of understanding about the risks they are taking, demonstrates the inequities in the early-care and education system that existed before the pandemic.
Child-care workers deserve to be treated as the professionals they are, and to be fairly compensated and valued. Nearly half of child-care workers — who are primarily women and often women of color — earn poverty wages. Despite low wages and lack of benefits, child-care workers provide an essential service to our communities, something we are seeing firsthand during this pandemic.
The future of the child-care system hangs in the balance, with an estimated 30% to 50% of all providers at risk of permanent closure. We know too much not to act with a sense of urgency. Our kids and child-care workers deserve better. We must rebuild better than before.
Child Care Aware of America is launching an initiative this summer to re-envision the child-care system through a series of virtual events with parents, providers, policymakers, child-care resource and referral agencies, employers, and other local, state and national partners. This initiative will result in clear policy recommendations and will be guided by a commitment to equity.
Everyone has a role to play in strengthening children and the child-care system. Parents can support child-care providers by learning about and following enhanced health and safety measures. Businesses can recognize the importance of child-care services and assistance for their employees. And state and federal policymakers can support significant funding to save our child-care system.
Together, we can create a culture shift to prioritize the development of young children.
Janine, the health-care provider, summed up what’s at stake: “As parents, we have to go to work, and access to child care is critical. A child’s development at home in front of the computer is not the same as interacting with classmates and teachers. I have another baby that most likely will be going to child care, and I feel confident that they’re going to be safe and happy, and they’re going to learn.”
Jackie Bezos is president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation.
Lynette M. Fraga is CEO of Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit organization that works with more than 400 state and local child-care resource and referral agencies and other community partners to ensure that all families have access to quality, affordable child care.
by Lynette Fraga and Jackie Bezos