In February, Philadelphia-based early childhood educator Adrienne Briggs found herself in a quandary. Partially in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, state licensing rules had changed in December 2020. But Briggs wasn’t able to get her hands on a hard copy of the new regulations, and no one, it seemed, could tell her what was in it.
She attended a webinar, but the presenter didn’t provide documentation for attendees to reference. Briggs could never find the time to call the 800 number during work hours when she was teaching children at Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Home, where she is both owner and sole employee. And even when she finally did figure out what the new policy called for, Briggs learned that complying was sometimes impossible. New regulations called for practitioners to, among other duties, fill out a new fire drill log with COVID-related lockdown information on it. But even as that rule went into effect, state agencies were still creating the log.
With COVID-19 spreading wildly in her community in the winter, Briggs also had bigger concerns than tracking down, deciphering, reconciling, and implementing state licensing policies. When EdSurge interviewed her in February, Briggs said, “Now I’m spending my evenings and my weekends cleaning. So when do I have time to sit and read a new policy?”
Briggs is far from alone in citing a key challenge for early childhood educators during the pandemic year: frequently changing and often conflicting regulations and guidance from a host of authorities. Over the last 10 months, as part of EdSurge’s research and reporting project to document the impact of COVID-19 on the early childhood workforce, we’ve heard from many early childhood educators and providers like Briggs.
EdSurge has heard from educators who stayed up late to piece together health and safety policies from a variety of sources; rushed to catch up as licensing boards roll out new regulations; wavered on whom to call to make sure that they were in compliance; and struggled to adapt their teaching and student interactions to the new rules.
As Briggs, who is one of seven women EdSurge profiled in an oral history of early childhood educators during the pandemic, explained in December, “In child care, it’s [like] 900 agencies with 900 pieces of information … It can be very overwhelming, especially right now with information changing the way it is.”
During interviews, many early childhood educators explained that there were real consequences for this failure of agencies to coordinate. Some providers were unclear about whether they needed to quarantine or shut down completely for inconclusive COVID-19 tests—a decision with both potential health and economic impacts. Others were unsure about how to react when parents asked if they could send their children back to school immediately after traveling.
These problems of inconsistent, contradictory and unclear guidance and rules in the early childhood education arena aren’t new, as we explored in an earlier series. But the challenge—and the risks associated with it—has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. That’s been a constant theme throughout EdSurge’s current project.
In the absence of expansive governmental support for the child care industry, the early childhood education workforce has long faced low pay and poor benefits, with turnover rates high. Many in the industry operate on razor-thin margins. Child care costs are already astronomically high, and providers risk losing families—in droves—if they pass along the cost of higher workforce compensation in the form of increased tuition.
Enter the pandemic and an already dire situation became even worse for child care providers, as EdSurge has chronicled. Providers struggled to stay open for a number of reasons. In some places, mandatory closures early in the pandemic deprived programs of revenue. When programs reopened, positive tests prompted classroom quarantines—or even program-wide short-term closures—that put further strains on revenue. At first, enrollment was down as safety remained a concern for some families. But educators, too, have had fears and misgivings about returning.
Staff turnover—always an industry problem—became even worse and has continued even as COVID-19 has subsided throughout the United States. For the programs that avoided permanent closure, one of the biggest challenges has been recruiting and retaining enough staff to stay open and return to full enrollment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced educators to make adjustments to how they teach and interact with children. Some of these changes are outwardly visible—children and teachers wearing masks, a greater focus on siloed play, increased attention to cleaning, more time spent outside and in some cases, virtual learning.
Many of these changes will end with the pandemic. But some experts worry that structural or policy changes made in the name of pandemic realities—relaxed or abandoned teacher qualification requirements for state-funded preschools, for example—will outlast the current crisis.
Other changes are less visible, but no less anguished. In interviews, early childhood educators told EdSurge about how they thought twice about holding a preschool-aged child who needed consoling. They lamented not being able to have family members come into the classroom to see their children’s learning up-close. They were wistful about the field trips they couldn’t have, the Santa Claus events they couldn’t host. They worried about the effects that the pandemic was having on children, understanding that many students would absorb the trauma and worry from frequent and unpredictable school closures, parents’ stress and ongoing concerns about safety. They could keep it together in the classroom for the children, educators told EdSurge, but they sometimes went home and cried.
From inconsistent regulations to low pay, inadequate staffing and minimal governmental support, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep-seated challenges in early childhood education. It has also shown the importance of the sector to myriad results: kindergarten preparedness for young learners, social outcomes, a strong economy, and women’s participation in the workforce, to name just a few. At the same time, the pandemic has spotlighted just how little the early childhood education workforce is valued—as demonstrated by a handful of states that failed to prioritize practitioners for the COVID-19 vaccine.
A number of proposed policies and legislative efforts aim to bring new respect, consistency and an infusion of funding to the early childhood sector. A report from this winter released by a coalition of advocacy organizations calls for the creation of a new credential, apprenticeships and a university with wraparound services, among other “radical changes” to the field. To push wages higher and improve working conditions, the most recent edition of the Workforce Index from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley, calls for public funding for care and education, starting as early as birth.
Educators whom EdSurge interviewed for stories and research for this project weren’t always sure which policies would have the most effect on their livelihoods and work conditions. Some were skeptical that the new attention on the early childhood education workforce would result in anything more than lip service. How could a politician understand what it was like to get down at a child’s level and calm him amid an outburst? Or what it was like to work a second job and still not have much left after paying rent? Or the terror that educators felt when their classrooms were quarantined after a positive case?
But many early childhood educators EdSurge interviewed were hopeful that change was going to come this time. They believed that slowly, but surely, the realities of the past year would make Americans see how essential early childhood educators are—not just during the pandemic, but even as the country seeks to move on from it.