During the COVID-19 crisis, the value of early care and education has become top-of-mind for our community. Early childhood educators are essential workers. This fact quickly became clear as first responders, medical staff, grocery store workers and so many others were trying to work while caring for and educating their children.

Access to high-quality early care and education in Portland – and across Maine – was a pressing issue before COVID-19. When the crisis began, many child care programs across the Portland area, and much of the state, closed for the health and safety of the community.

What has come to light during this pandemic is how fragile the system really is and it raises several questions. What will the landscape for this essential service look like moving forward? How many child care programs will be able to reopen? If they can open again, with so many families facing economic challenges, where will the funds come from to keep their doors open? Will early educators finally be paid in alignment with their value, skills and competencies?

One of the most pressing issues facing early care and education programs in Portland, and across the state, is loss of revenue because of their reliance on private pay from families. Revenue from families is used to cover costs so that a child care program can operate. This critical loss was indicated by licensed child care programs in a March survey conducted by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, where I serve as executive director. In that same survey, only 16 percent of respondents reported their child care programs could survive a closure of one or two months without emergency public funding.

In my work with the association, as well as with other organizations such as Portland Works for Kids, which is advocating to increase access to high-quality early care and education, we have heard from the directors of child care programs that making the decision to close was difficult. And unlike public schools, which receive explicit guidelines and direction from the state, the difficult decision of if, how and when to safely open child care sites also falls on individual owners and directors.

Now more than ever, it is time to rethink early childhood education and value it as a public good, similar to public schools. This would address many of the core weaknesses in our early care and education system, including funding and coordinated policies.

The bulk of funding for early care and education comes from families with some subsidies from the federal government, while our public school system benefits from a variety of funding sources, including municipal, state and federal funds. During COVID-19, this has allowed K-12 teachers to remain compensated and employed, supporting the education of students from a distance. Because of this consistent funding, our public schools are ready to reopen when it is safe. It’s time we value this same consistency in learning and support for Maine’s young children and their families.

COVID-19 has required that schools, businesses, nonprofits and state and local governments redefine how they operate in order to keep our community safe and help the economy move forward. Child care is an important part of the solution. It’s not only an essential service that allows parents to work and our state to reopen, but the early educators who work in this sector also provide our young children with experiences that nurture their cognitive, social and emotional growth: the building blocks that help children enter kindergarten prepared to succeed.

Early care and education should be prioritized and treated as a public good. We will be facing a long-term crisis for children and families, as well as our economy, if we do not invest in early educators in alignment with their value, skills and competencies and in the child care programs where they work and support our community.


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