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Column: Pandemic exposes fragility of child care system

  • A teddy bear is left in a child’s cubby at Kidsview Academy Preschool and Daycare in Enfield, N.H., Saturday, May 9, 2020. The childcare center closed in mid-March and will not reopen. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 5/21/2020 10:20:14 PM
Modified: 5/21/2020 10:20:03 PM

I find myself seeking silver linings during this unprecedented time and harvesting lessons to take forward. I feel gratitude more deeply than ever before. I am grateful to those on the front lines doing critical work where help is needed most. I am grateful to be part of a community that comes together in extraordinary ways during times of need.

A group of front-line workers often overlooked are our early childhood educators and caregivers.

When schools were closed and non-essential workers were told to stay home, these professionals quickly recognized the need to provide care for the young children of essential workers during this pandemic. Many made the decision to remain open. These providers are doing everything possible to keep themselves, their staff and the families they serve safe.

New Hampshire — through the CARES Act — has committed $7 million to provide incentive pay and vital supplies to providers that remain open. Members of the philanthropic community, including the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Couch Family Foundation have stepped in to provide meaningful additional support, an example of community coming together.

But what happens when this emergency funding ceases? This already fragile system of early education and care can easily crumble. There is no better time than during this recovery period to rebuild the early care and education infrastructure to serve all children and families in New Hampshire.

The child care industry was vulnerable in the best of circumstances, operating on paper-thin margins. These are small business owners and nonprofit organizations committed to giving our youngest children the social, emotional and educational support they need so they enter school ready to reach their full potential.

Prior to COVID-19, early care and education programs in New Hampshire struggled to keep their doors open. They were faced with ongoing staffing shortages and turnover rates of nearly 40 percent — low-paid staff earning an average of $11 an hour without benefits despite their professional degrees and education — all while working hard to keep quality high and tuition affordable. The demand for affordable, high-quality early education and care well outpaced the supply, leaving many parents with young children unable to join the workforce.

Today, of the nearly 900 licensed childcare programs in New Hampshire, approximately 270 remain open to serve children in a limited capacity. More want to re-open but cannot without financial assistance to help defer the costs of additional staff required to meet new safety and social distancing guidelines.

Unfortunately, several child care centers will remain closed indefinitely. With insufficient funding from the state (New Hampshire is one of the few states in the U.S. that does not fund public preschool) and little funding from the business community, our early care and education system as it exists today will not survive this crisis. And many working parents of young children will not be able to return to their jobs.

COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down, but we can use recovery as an opportunity for change if we are guided by careful thinking and a pathway leading to results-oriented success. Amid this crisis we are beginning to see actions that are already having a positive impact on the sector, such as technical assistance and financial literacy coaching for providers, bulk purchasing for cleaning supplies, access to real-time data, and shared services and networks. These are just a few examples of strategies that can help sustain the early childhood education system, but they require leadership and investment.

A silver lining during this pandemic is the affirmation of early education and care as essential to a productive and robust workforce. As we think about the future, it’s increasingly clear that the recovery of the child care sector is a precondition to the recovery of the economy. Therefore, the child care industry needs to remain front and center in statewide discussions as we rebuild.

We need an early education system that can thrive if we want to grow our economy and launch the next generation at its full potential. It is imperative that government, business and philanthropy come together now to drive change.

Barbara Couch, of Hanover, is president of the Hypertherm HOPE Foundation and a trustee of the Couch Family Foundation.




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