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Charting the path to a post-pandemic ECE system

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Advocates for early care and education (ECE) reform gathered Nov. 13 for a virtual conversation about the state of the ECE workforce in MA, the challenges they’re facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the path to creating a more sustainable, racially equitable ECE system in which early educators are valued for their expertise and experience, and compensated accordingly—ideally with public funding.

The Leadership Institute’s Executive Director Anne Douglass, PhD was among the presenters who delivered hard truths about working in ECE at The Early Childhood (Virtual) Coffee & Conversation: The EC Workforce, which was hosted by The Boston Foundation and moderated by Brian Gold, the foundation’s early childhood program officer.

Douglass was joined by presenters Arazeliz Reyes, PhD Candidate, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Binal Pitel, chief program officer at Neighborhood Villages. ECE providers Joycelyn Browne and Alicia Jno-Baptiste, both graduates of Leadership Institute programs, also addressed attendees, sharing their experiences of working amid the pandemic and what is needed to alleviate the burdens on ECE professionals.

Douglass began on a positive note by pointing out the assets that the ECE workforce brings to the profession and the current child care crisis. She did so by presenting findings from the Leadership Institute’s pre-pandemic workforce survey (conducted with UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy and the Center for Social Policy) on which Reyes is also a co-author.

One bright spot? Nearly 70 percent of center directors and 53 percent of family child care providers have more than 16 years of experience in ECE, which shows that the workforce “draws on a deep well of experience to do its job,” said Douglass.

The workforce also values professional development and continuing education said Douglass, pointing to findings that the majority of center directors (58 percent) and more than a third of family child care providers or center educators aspired to earn a degree or attain a higher one if they already had one, and a majority of all workforce groups regularly engage in professional development and learning activities. Additionally, despite challenges like low wages, most of the workforce wants to remain in the field: 70 percent of center directors and family child care providers, along with about half center educators, said it was unlikely they’d leave their job in the next year.

Douglass warned that there is “absolutely no possibility” that ECE could return to the status quo, i.e. low wages, lack of public support, racial inequity, when the pandemic subsides. “We cannot afford to lose the assets this workforce brings and we cannot afford to continue with the inequities that are put on this workforce,” she said.

Reyes detailed the challenges that the survey revealed, such as a widespread lack of paid planning time and classroom coverage, and compensation that is not equal to educators’ professional qualification and societal contributions.

“As we know [K-12] teachers are valued but early educators, not so much—and it shows in terms of their worse compensation,” Reyes said, noting, for example, that center directors in the survey earned on average significantly less than public school principals (roughly $54,000 versus $118,000), their professional counterparts in education. Family child care providers and center educators also earned less than public school teachers (roughly $46,000 and $32,000 versus $64,000). And unlike K-12 public educators, employee health insurance and retirement plans are not universal benefits for ECE educators.

Not surprisingly, the low compensation caused economic insecurity—even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy. Sixty-five percent of center educators and family child care providers said they worried about not being able to afford enough food, while majorities of center directors, family child care providers and center educators worried about not being able to keep up with monthly bills. Eighty-five percent of ECE professionals reported receiving at least one government safety net benefit. MassHealth and Medicaid coverage for themselves or their children was the most frequently cited benefit that employees received. Other benefits included SNAP, EBT, housing, fuel assistance and WIC.

More concerning were the racial disparities in leadership and compensation for ECE professionals. Ninety percent of center directors—among the highest paid ECE professionals— were White, while Hispanic/Latinx people accounted for five percent of center directors, Black or African American people comprised four percent, and Asian people accounted for just one percent. White family child care providers earned more than three dollars per hour more than their Black counterparts, while White Center Directors earned more than $1.50 per hour more than Hispanic/Latinx Center Directors.

Douglass said that ECE advocates must devise “intentional strategies” to promote leadership pathways and compensation reform that will address these racial inequities.

Pitel’s presentation of her Neighborhood Villages’ periodic surveys of mostly private pay, center-based programs over the course of the pandemic revealed the increasingly dire straits of many in the ECE workforce. Providers have exhausted financial reserves, increased tuition, decreased staff salaries, cut staff, reduced program hours, and secured additional loans to re-open their programs following the spring shutdown. Additionally, salaries among the survey respondents were so low that most early educators had been working additional jobs, many of which were also lost amid pandemic-related closures.

“There’s been an immense financial burden on the educators who have already sacrificed so much to do a job where they were barely making a livable wage,” said Pitel.

Indeed, Jno-Baptiste, owner of Wee Care JP, said too many early educators—despite decades of experience and advanced education—struggle to take time off or put their own children in day care. The low pay also makes filling positions difficult, she said, noting that last year she was forced to close a classroom due to lack of interest in the teaching position.

By September, said Pitel, ECE programs had lost an average of 20 percent of their workforce, with some reporting attrition rates of up to 50-70 percent. The primary reasons cited were COVID-19 health risks, lack of child care for educators’ own children, and the pursuit of other teaching options.

Results from a November survey showed that educators continue to endure significant challenges, among them long wait times for COVID test results, resulting in an inability of programs to maintain necessary coverage, a lack of funding to implement consistent surveillance testing, insufficient classroom staffing, increased expenses related to COVID-19 reduced enrollment, and inconsistency in health and safety guidelines.

“Programs are doing everything they can,” Pitel said. “They’re getting desperate and really trying to figure out how to keep coverage and how to keep programs open under the conditions that they’re in right now.”

Jno-Baptiste’s experience demonstrates the sustainability bind in which providers now find themselves: she has had to hire more teachers to ensure that sanitization procedures are maintained throughout the day, yet she has fewer students than normal enrolled due to the virus. Pre-COVID-19, Jno-Baptiste’s preschool classroom had 14 children and two teachers. Now it has 10 children and three teachers.

Likewise, Brown, who owns Little Ones in Dorchester, said that while early educators have become more respected and valued as the public has recognized their vital role in making the economy function, that has not translated into monetary terms. Compensation, she said, is “nowhere close to [the amount of work] we do, and we have to do, every day, and the long hours we perform our jobs, also.”

To alleviate some of the challenges, Pitel pointed to Neighborhood Villages’ Career Pathways for Early Educators, a program that supports new teachers in earning a CDA credential and other professional development, and connects programs that are short staffed with certified teachers and lead teachers; and a collaboration with AmeriCorps which places their members with the ECE and after-school organizations that have opened their facilities to children needing a safe place to attend virtual school while their parents work.

Pitel said that to sustain the ECE workforce now and the future, programs statewide need access to free rapid test results for educators, funding for surveillance testing, public funding to hire and retain new staff, long term support to increase to increase educator wages, and greater investment in workforce pipeline initiatives that support teacher training and onboarding, such as AmeriCorps or apprenticeship programs.

Douglass advocated for treating ECE as a public good worthy of the public funding that comes with such a designation. “This is a public good. It’s essential for the entire economy to function, for our democracy on every level, and yet it’s not publicly funded,” said Douglass. “So when a crisis like [COVID-19] hits, it just guts the financial backbone of this industry, which is based on private pay primarily. It’s clear this is a public good, it needs to be funded that way. There’s lots of little solutions here and there but that’s the systemic solution.”

Video of the conversation is available here.

Presentation slides are available here.

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