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Early Childhood Educators in America: Through the Lens of a Pandemic

By Albert Wat, Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success

America, we have a lot of work to do.

At the Alliance for Early Success, we have been investing in state and national efforts to advance the early childhood education (ECE) profession. As the staff who leads that area of work, I’ve seen some important signs of progress, with many Alliance investors and allies at the forefront. Funders have come together to invest in transformative change. The ECE field is coalescing around a common vision and policy framework for who the profession is, what it’s about, and how early childhood educators ought to be supported by our nation’s policy leaders and elected officials. We are not just talking about compensation; we are actually doing something about it. We have more and better data about who the profession is and what their working conditions and experience look like to inform policy remedies. And we’ve been having some tough but critical conversations about the need to elevate the leadership and voices of the educators themselves and to keep equity and diversity issues front and center in any efforts to advance the profession.

Then came the coronavirus.

The pandemic put the entire early care and education field – and child care, specifically – in disarray and into its own existential crisis. Should programs close or stay open? If they close, how will they remain financially solvent? How will the staff, program directors, or owners be paid? Will states continue the subsidy payments? Will they cover the families’ co-pay too? How will families who need it find child care? Who will provide care to frontline health care providers and other essential workers? Should we relax certain regulations to make sure there’s sufficient supply? And if so, which of the already relatively minimal standards do we relax? If they remain open, what about the health and safety of the early childhood educators? If they get sick, will their medical needs be covered? On and on . . . 

Despite the progress that I still believe we’ve made, these questions show that COVID-19 is revealing how little our nation respects and values early childhood educators.

Early childhood educators wouldn’t be in such a precarious situation if our policies and funding treated them as professionals who provide a public good, like public school teachers. We wouldn’t stand for reimbursing subsidized child care at 75th percentile of the market rate as the goal – a shamefully low bar that almost no state meets. We wouldn’t stand for minimal licensing standards and subsidy rates that bear little relationship to quality. We wouldn’t pay child care programs based on attendance, as if we’re paying for programs to work with kids in isolation, rather than in a social, interactive learning environment. We wouldn’t have “co-pays” from families and worry about what happens to providers’ income or business when parents cannot afford it. Early childhood educators would have benefits, like sick leave and health care. And no, we definitely wouldn’t pay early childhood educators $11 an hour, putting about half of the workforce on public assistance, and leaving educators — and often their employers — teetering on that razor-thin edge between poverty and subsistence.

States’ responses to the pandemic offers another window into how we undervalue early childhood educators. When states and districts started closing schools “out of an abundance of caution,” but child care programs remained open, we heard that young children were not considered at-risk. Then we heard guidance for maintaining social distancing and small group size. (No, you can’t social distance in ECE.) For some, the message seemed clear – those who educate older children are more important, more valued than those caring for our youngest residents. More recently, states have begun implementing emergency child care for essential workers like health care providers, whose children could be more susceptible to contract the virus. In the process, elected officials in some states have begun to recognize child care staff as essential workers as well, but very few of them are providing some kind of bonus or incentive pay to recognize the early childhood educators for their sacrifice.

Admittedly, policymakers have tough choices to make. They have to protect and serve their constituents, and in order for families to continue to receive essential services like health care and food services, someone needs to provide child care. Child care, it turns out, is critical. Some states are beginning to do better. New Mexico is covering the cost of treatment if emergency child care staff who are uninsured contract COVID-19. North Carolina is paying programs more for their service and requiring them to pay their staff more. But these examples are few and far between. It’s still hard to ignore the double standard during the school shutdowns or the dissonance between the way our policies have for decades treated early childhood educators and our praise for this workforce when disaster strikes. 

So when we come out on the other side of COVID-19, we need to have a serious conversation and take some transformative action. Because we cannot let this happen to the early care and education community again. And going back to where we were before the pandemic is not enough. We can’t continue to say how important ECE is to child development and the economy, expect them to do this work at subsistence wages and in poor conditions, and tell them how “essential” they are when we really need them.

Luckily, the ECE field has a vision for what it takes to build a well-prepared, well-supported, well-compensated, diverse, and competent profession. We’ve been developing policy and advocacy agendas around higher education, funding strategies, and career pathways. When this crisis subsides, we should double down on this agenda, even though our budgets will be depleted. We must take this opportunity to build the ECE profession of the future, just like we rebuild roads and bridges after wars and storms. 

Because like roads and bridges, early childhood educators are part of the essential infrastructure of a thriving economy — both in peace times and during disasters — when we need them to step up and keep our society from falling apart.


Albert Wat is a Senior Policy Director for the Alliance for Early Success, where he leads a portfolio of state and national Alliance partnerships and investments focused on early learning, including pre-k, child care, and the education continuum from birth through third grade. He brings to the Alliance experience in state policies on literacy and social-emotional development, pre-k access and quality, learning standards, assessments, data systems, and alignment between early learning policies and practices and education reform initiatives, especially in the early elementary years.

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