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Margaret Krome: Our nation depends on early childhood educators, and it's time we act like it

Margaret Krome: Our nation depends on early childhood educators, and it's time we act like it

EARLY CHILDHOOD ZONE- 04-12072016090539 (copy)

Yuritzi Garcia (left), a former early childhood zone parent participant along with two-year old Jobanny Juarez (center) and his mother Fresuisda Ramos (right) play during their meeting on Dec 6, 2016 in Madison, WI. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

When our children were young, they benefited from an exceptional early childhood education provider. Joan engaged each of her children in exploratory activities, fed them healthy food, settled everyone for naps, and still found time to write up each child’s activities and organize countless field trips, contributing our children’s delight in exploring the world.

My friend Daniel related recently his family’s gratitude that they had successfully enrolled both their 3-year old daughter and 5-year old son in child care, with the older child joining the younger after kindergarten hours. I celebrated. I’ve also talked with child care providers who showed me what it took to help Daniel’s family.

One provider, Jane, has been licensed for family child care for over a dozen years, usually educating eight children at a time. When COVID-19 hit, her enrollees dropped to six. Then, the local preschool shut its doors, and Jane had to help families she serves by taking their preschool children, for whom, being older, she charges less. This fall, all those children will be with her, learning virtually, to avoid cross-contamination; Jane will help them during the nap time she usually uses for planning. The local school system supports their virtual learning with videos, work packets and other offerings; four teachers at the school (with whom she will find time to collaborate) will be paid for their education. Jane herself will receive no extra compensation for the extra work of helping these students.

Another provider, Sara, says that COVID-19's impact was swift, halving the children in her care one week after the stay-at-home order. She says, “My income is down by a third, but I feel so sorry for those families who have lost jobs.”

Providers now must worry about every child’s sneeze or fever, which means extra precautions, time and costs. In addition to 50 hours weekly with her children, Jane works an additional 15-25 hours in grocery shopping, cleaning (45 minutes daily just to sanitize everything), washing five loads of laundry every night. Nobody compensates her for her increased utility bills or cleaning supplies, or the PPE. Regarding masks and other supplies, “All we've gotten is community donations or we bought it ourselves with money we don't have.”

In the best of times, early childhood education is notoriously under-compensated work. Wisconsin’s average pay at child care centers is $10 an hour. Few providers have retirement, and health care is a luxury, often dependent on one’s spouse’s job.

The state of Wisconsin administered the federal CARES Act, through which Wisconsin providers got $51 million, providing retroactive compensation for child care providers who remained open through COVID-19. But many providers say that the payment formulas were unfair to providers who remained open through the spring but closed, as normally they do, for the summer.

Early childhood professionals are frustrated at being under-recognized and under-compensated. When schools close, providers are asked to step up, without support, absorbing the extra costs. The system is precarious, and between 45 and 50% of providers are expected to close by the end of the year.

If the nation wants to reopen safely and successfully, it will depend on professional child care being available. In the midst of the pandemic, early childhood educators have taken risks and stayed open to meet essential needs. We should rush to help them with financially and with the supplies we provide to public schools.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

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