Commentary: For society to emerge strong, care for the child care providers

Last updated: 07-18-2020

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Commentary: For society to emerge strong, care for the child care providers

As our community reopens, there are questions and debates over wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and how quickly or how cautiously to move ahead. But another critical question is on the minds of the parents of young children, people who comprise up to 40 percent of the workforce: Who will take care of the kids?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed glaring flaws and inequities in our society: the disturbing photo of thousands of cars in line for a San Antonio Food Bank distribution at Traders Village made national news, cars carrying families in our own community without enough to eat; the overrepresentation of our neighbors of color, particularly African Americans, among the grim statistics of the very ill and the deaths from the virus.

What has not been so publicly noted, but surely will be over the next weeks and months of recovery, is the workforce that supports the workforce. The child care industry, absolutely essential to almost half the workforce, is in shambles. Across the country, in Texas and locally, many child care operations have closed; many will not be able to reopen. For those that do, their continuing ability to survive is fragile. The child care sector operates with a slim margin of profit, and therefore viability, in the best of times.

This is not the best of times. All parents worry, and many are justifiably afraid to put their children in group settings. Declining enrollments and the need to maintain social distancing, as well as extra costs for cleaning and sanitizing supplies, will make it challenging to keep doors open. With schools closed and far fewer summer programs this year, more children will need care, including the children of child care professionals themselves.

Without the ability to access safe, affordable care for their children, some parents will not be able to return to their jobs or re-enter the workforce; some will choose to stay home and receive unemployment. Sadly, for those in the child care profession, what they may receive in unemployment is often more than their average salary of somewhat over $9.50 an hour. What does that say about the value society places on those who dedicate themselves to caring for and educating children during the most critical years of their lives?

From mothers, educators and social scientists to Nobel Prize-winning economists, it is commonly known that experiences in the first three years of life have a profound influence — for good or for ill — on a child’s future. What we have known for decades from multiple studies is now indisputable from technologically sophisticated brain imagery. The experiences of a baby and young child impact developing brain architecture. The capacity to develop loving and amicable relationships, to be successful in school, work and life, as well as impediments to learning and caring, and even the roots of violence, are well proven to begin in the nursery.

We have seen the inequities of this crisis, and have responded with generosity and an understanding that we are interdependent, that we really are all in this together. We can remake the parts of society that need to change, and emerge better and stronger. We can learn from this moment.

The early care and education system is not the only system impacting children, but it is a critical one to children, parents, employers and the livelihood of a community. There are several actions that will strengthen the system for all our children:

 Acknowledge the value of early care/child care as the public good that it is by investing in quality care that is accessible to every child and affordable for every parent who needs and wants it.

 Support the child care workforce through access to educational opportunities and reasonable compensation.

 Increase child care capacity and diversify options for care by developing and strengthening family/home-based child care networks through access to professional and business training and startup support, particularly in areas of the community where parents need it most.

 Build on and use the best knowledge we have about what babies and young children need to grow and thrive.

If we truly are committed to ensuring equity — an equal opportunity for everyone to thrive — the time to start is in the first years of life, and that time is now.

Kathy Fletcher holds a doctorate in special education and postdoctoral work in public health. She is one of the founders and is president/CEO of Voices for Children of San Antonio.


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