Social distancing with a toddler? Not likely. With an infant? Impossible.
That's the reality for child care workers today – a group of essential service providers who were already underpaid and undervalued when the COVID-19 pandemic began. As the shutdown reveals the intricate connections among jobs, employees and a healthy economy, those who work in child care shouldn't be overlooked. Their efforts allow health care workers and other essential employees to continue working, and they deserve recognition for vital jobs that have too long been neglected.
Staff at Early Childhood Alliance's Downtown Learning Center and Beacon Learning Center returned Monday to care for 53 children – infants, toddlers and preschoolers – after both centers were temporarily shut down. At one center, an employee reported exposure to the coronavirus; at the other an employee whose work doesn't involve direct contact with children tested positive for the virus. After the recommended amount of time had passed, 22 staff members returned to work.
“We're trying very hard to keep everyone whole as far as their financial security,” said Madeleine Baker, chief executive officer for Early Childhood Alliance. “No one has lost their job.”
Extra precautions are in place. Employees have masks donated by the community. Hand sanitizer was donated by Three Rivers Distilling Co. Cleaning solutions used at the centers are approved by the state to ensure children aren't exposed to toxins or other dangerous substances. The centers open at 6 a.m. for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting before parents can begin dropping children off at 7 a.m. The centers close at 5 p.m. to allow for another hour of cleaning.
Baker said the agency ordered special clothing for employees to protect themselves, as well as gloves. Parents are no longer allowed in the classrooms. Staff members' and children's temperatures are taken as they arrive. Parents have been asked to bring extra clothing for their children so soiled items can be immediately removed and washed.
But maintaining a six-foot distance isn't an option when little ones must be held, diapers require changing or a toddler needs help in the bathroom.
“The nature of child care does not allow for social distancing,” Baker said. “We are taking every precautionary measure with (the employees) because without them we can't provide services. But at the same time, without families we're not going to be able to provide services, which means it will impact pay.”
The learning centers, which typically provide care for more than 100 children, are seeing lower attendance partly because the state relaxed restrictions on child care vouchers to allow parents more time at home. Early Childhood Alliance was among the nonprofit agencies receiving emergency assistance from the Foellinger Foundation.
“I think everybody is doing what they need to do,” Baker said. “It would be great if the state of Indiana could thank child care workers along with health care workers, because for them to work, they must have child care.”
Recognizing child care employees' role in the Indiana economy should be an ongoing responsibility for the state. The Indiana Institute for Working Families points to research showing an early care and education system that prioritizes quality and fair wages for workers would benefit children, teachers and parents. In Indiana, “essential” child-care workers have an average wage of just $11.25 an hour and often are not eligible for paid sick leave.
“Currently, early care and education is substantially 'funded' through low teacher pay and inadequate supports for teachers, who are primarily women of color, which further widens the wage gap,” according to the institute. “The high cost of (quality child care) forces parents to leave the labor force and forgo roughly $30 billion to $35 billion in income ... a loss of taxable revenue of about $4.2 billion each year. ... Substantial state investments would aid our recovery from the COVID-19 crisis by allowing parents to get back to work quickly, and improve the well-being of children and (early care and education) workers in the long term.”