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Kansas City's Child Care Crisis Is Only Going To Get Worse

Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
U.S. Air Force
After preschools and early childhood centers closed in March, few of the nation's youngest students were able to participate in remote learning. Now experts are warning that the long-term consequences could be serious.

Five months into the pandemic, some providers haven't reopened and many never will. Without access to child care, experts say many families are struggling to meet their kids' developmental needs.

Young children experienced “a devastating loss of learning time” when preschools closed this spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

That’s according to a parent survey from the National Institute for Early Education Research that found only 10% of children whose classrooms closed were read to daily or engaged in a math or science activity with their caregivers.

The survey found that distance learning was lacking for children of all races and socioeconomic statuses, but the long-term consequences are likely to be most profound for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The best way to address this inequality is to reopen schools for our youngest children, who learn best through hands-on activities and engaging with responsive adults and other children,” Steve Barnett, co-director of NIEER and a study author, said in a statement.

Protecting students, families and teachers should be paramount as preschools reopen, Barnett continued. If in-person learning is impossible due to worsening pandemic conditions, pre-kindergarten programs will need to figure out how to deliver more robust distance learning than they did in the spring.

Per the study, support for children’s learning and development was limited after schools and centers closed. Most parents received instructions on how to contact their children’s teachers, and many received worksheets or limited online support.

But very young children aren't meant to learn from screens.

“Young children learn best through hands-on activities and responsive interactions one-on-one and in small groups with adults and other children,” Barnett and co-author Kwanghee Jung wrote.

Permanent closures

Early childhood education – and more broadly, child care – is in crisis right now. The vast majority of providers aren’t serving enough children to remain profitable, and up to 40% could close without additional public assistance, according to a provider survey the National Association for the Education of Young Children published last month.

“Child care providers have made it clear that they are doing everything they can to hold their programs together: scrimping, spending down savings and sacrificing their own income,” NAEYC said in a statement.

“If help doesn’t come – and soon – in order to save child care, there will be little left of child care to save. The U.S. economy will suffer the consequences as families returning to work can’t find quality, reliable care for their children.”

The impact on minority-owned child care will be profound. About half of the respondents of color told NAEYC they’ll have to close permanently without financial help.

The Family Conservancy
The Family Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Wyandotte County, has launched a yard sign campaign to remind Kansas Citians that child care is critical infrastructure because it allows parents to work.

From a policy perspective, one of the challenges is how many different business models there are for child care. Some providers are small businesses, serving a limited number of children in their homes. Public and private schools provide early childhood education. Other programs are run by churches and nonprofits.

Program type determined whether providers closed in March. The Family Conservancy, a Wyandotte County-based nonprofit, tracked how many child care providers were open during the first four months of the pandemic. On the Kansas side, where in-home child care is the norm, most providers remained open even after K-12 schools closed in March.

But in Missouri, where most of the metro’s child care centers are located, only 65% of providers had reopened by early July.

“It’s been a moving target,” said Family Conservancy CEO Paula Neth. “Programs would be open for a couple of weeks and then they would decide that they weren’t having enough families or maybe someone on staff got ill, so they would close.”

Weighing the risks

There have been coronavirus clusters linked to reopening child care centers in places like Texas, where more than 2,800 people have gotten sick, about two-third of them children.

But those cases were spread out across 1,678 facilities, meaning most providers were able to curtail significant spread by following safety protocols.

It also means that the majority of Texas child care providers that have reopened – more than 10,000 – have been able to operate without any cases popping up.

Closer to home, many Johnson County providers continued to operate when schools and businesses closed in March. Last week, an epidemiologist from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment cited low transmission rates among young children as one of the reasons why public health experts weren’t recommending a remote start to the school year.

“We feel that it is safe for (elementary students) to go into the school setting because we’ve seen really good evidence of that in our day care settings here in Johnson County,” Elizabeth Holzschuh said at a town hall forum.

But Neth, CEO of the Family Conservancy, pointed out that while working with young children might be lower risk, child care workers are still on the frontlines, and many don’t have a safety net if there is an outbreak.

“People don’t realize that we were open even during the stay-at-home order. Some of our providers have been putting their own health and safety at risk while being under or uninsured,” Neth said.

And if cases continue to soar in the metro, providers could face an impossible choice: remain open and risk students and teachers getting sick, or close and lose their livelihood.

There are also the long-term effects on children to consider. The most significant brain development occurs between birth and age 3, and without early intervention in a high-quality child care setting, some kids won’t catch up.

“This is the time that parents need to find time in their schedule to ensure that they’re talking, reading and playing with their child every day,” Neth said.

But according to the NIEER study, that’s time parents don’t have right now.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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