California must commit to funding coronavirus protections for child care workers

Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSourcePhoto: Zaidee Stavely/EdSourceAnna J. Markowitz, Rashmita Mistry and Deb ValentineJuly 6, 2020California’s efforts to reopen our economy during the pandemic created tremendous public health risks, many of which are borne by child care providers. To ensure that child care centers reopen — and can stay open so parents can return to work — the state must spend tax dollars to protect early childhood educators.
The California 2020-21 budget agreement retains subsidies for child-care providers serving low-income families but funding for additional supplies and staff to meet pandemic-required health and safety guidelines depends on federal dollars.
The federal CARES Act will provide $144 million for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and another $125 million in one-time stipends for providers. But in a state with more than 9 million children and at least 200,000 early childhood educators, this will not go nearly far enough. It certainly will not provide health care for the many uninsured and underinsured child care providers.
And passage of another federal aid bill, the HEROES Act, which state lawmakers are looking to for additional aid, is by no means assured.
Early childhood educators need money to pay for cleaning supplies and services and personal protection equipment. Some data suggest that early educators already have spent an average of $700 out of pocket to cover these ongoing costs. They need hazard pay and priority access to Covid-19 tests — measures to protect them and the rest of us from infection.
Without a public commitment to support the health and safety of child care providers in the coming months, our economy will not be able to open. And, without high-quality child care, we risk allowing this crisis to harm our children’s futures.
The early care and education profession already is characterized by deep poverty and instability. With median wages of just over $12 per hour and limited access to employer sponsored medical benefits, this workforce is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Prior to the pandemic, more than 30% of early educators were food insecure, and in California roughly 60% of early educators qualified for some sort of means-tested public support.
Working conditions that erode wellbeing and generate instability for workers are not just bad for our economy — they also have grave consequences for young children who need well-trained, professional teachers and caregivers. Children’s experiences during their first five years have an outsized impact on their long-term physical, mental, personal and economic wellbeing.
Rapid brain and corresponding skill development sets the stage for subsequent growth and learning, and a large body of research has documented the importance of high-quality early care and education in preparing children to thrive. Unfortunately, it is difficult to offer warm, engaging, and intellectually stimulating care when one’s own basic needs are not met.
In addition to state and federal funding, philanthropic organizations need to identify ways to invest in the people who are providing care, rather than the technology that assists them. And, as we again place our children in the care of these frontline workers, we must acknowledge that returning to pre-pandemic working conditions is not tenable.
The words of one early educator sum it up well: “we are supposed to open up… and we have to sign waivers because of this virus. I have family and friends that have died.… I [am] scared to return to work but I have no choice.” This is unconscionable.
We are relying on early educators more than ever to support young children and families as we rebuild the economy. It’s time to devote public dollars to paying and supporting early educators in proportion to the incredible service they provide. Our survival during this pandemic, and how prepared we are for the next crisis, depends upon it.
Anna J. Markowitz and Rashmita Mistry are professors at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Deb Valentine is the executive director of the Early Child Care and Education Center at UCLA.
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