In the state of Arkansas, there are around 2,000 child care providers, but because of coronavirus repercussions, only about half are still open. In order to combat common issues like declining enrollment and a lack of access to cleaning supplies, medical equipment and essential food items, early childhood advocates are working to secure immediate support from the state to protect the child care sector.
Last month, the Arkansas Department of Human Services increased allocations for child care providers who were receiving Child Care and Development Block Grant funds. However, licensed programs without a federal subsidy agreement have received only limited aid from the state. A variety of organizations are calling for the state to provide relief through financial support for licensingproviders to meet the current ADH/DHS guidelines on capacity and decreasing enrollment, support existing programs rather than encouraging new private-sector childcare services, ease the process of securing essential food items, coordinate access to limited required cleaning supplies, and lastly, institute a grant or loan program managed by Community Development Financial Institutions to provide $10,000 per licensed provider for reopening or mitigating shortfalls related to decreased attendance.
“You have to think of early childhood as the middle of a Venn diagram with education, service and business,” Arkansas Early Childhood Association Executive Director Jeff Dyer said.“It kind of falls through the cracks sometimes when [Arkansas is] thinking of who [they] need to work with to help make sure they have the resources.”
Because these facilities are not recognized as essential workers as understood in terms of the state’s COVID-19 relief efforts, they are struggling to get the supplies they need, and about half have already closed their doors.
“ … So many of them maybe had an agreement with their local grocery store to be able to purchase 20 gallons of milk a week. Well, they’re limited now because they’re not considered [as] essential, so they’re limited to two gallons, so they’re having to figure out creative ways to get their needed supplies,” Dyer said. “They might tell their employees, ‘When you go and get milk, buy an extra gallon and I’ll pay you back.”
One family child-care in Mabelvale reported they were having difficulty finding the whole grains to be able to meet requirements by Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
The Committee for Economic Development reported that in 2019, child care was supporting more than 17,800 jobs, a $296.8-million payroll and 137,000 children.
“The numbers [say] about 74% of Arkansas kids are in some sort of community-based early childhood setting that is not a Pre-K at a school district that usually serves 3- and 4-year-olds,” Dyer said. “Anywhere from 65% to 90% of the money coming into an early childhood program is going toward salaries.”
As of March 25, 2020, 33 percent of programs had lost income due to families’ inability to pay.
One family child-care in Fayetteville that was licensed for 10 children only had three kids return after spring break when it was announced that schools would not be reopening, because 75 percent of the children in their care were teachers’ kids. Of those who did not return, all but one will be attending kindergarten in the fall, leaving the facility with the current hope of only one child returning this August, if the economy does not reopen before then.
However, with the state’s pending reopening of the economy, the hope is that those facilities that are still surviving can stay afloat long enough for there to be options for the parents that will be returning to work soon.
“You have to think of all those workers that are going back [to work], which is good, we’ve got to get them back and get the restaurants open and going,” Dyer said. “Think of the percentage of those that need childcare so they can go back to work, and if there’s not a childcare facility available where they are or it’s closed or whatever it is, then they can’t work and they have to find other means.”
As for those that have already closed their doors, Dyer said it is unlikely that they will come back.
“We’d be naive to think that all of them are gonna be able to come back if we just provided some support,” Dyer said. “I think a lot of it will depend on the assistance that they receive in being able to get their workforce back … for the most part, in those community-based programs, you’re talking about some of the lowest-paid [employees] … ”
While simply making it out on the other side of the pandemic is the most immediate objective, a change in how early childhood is perceived is also an important goal of Dyer’s during this time. He said that when conversations begin happening about who to prioritize in crises such as this, it is vital that early childhood has “a seat at the table.”
“That piece, the early childhood link in there is so critical to making sure that all these other facilities are able to continue working, just like keeping them open for the essential workers now has been critical [in meeting] the needs of those dealing with this situation,” Dyer said. “Two out of three kids under 5 live in homes where both parents work.”
Not only does the childcare sector serve the parents of the children in its care, but it also provides a living for the teachers. Dyer said that for these workers, their jobs have a unique aspect of devotion and that, alongside better wages, they also desire appreciation and decision-making power.
“You’ll find a lot of dedication to this field in that they love what they do and they do not want to leave, they have to be able to pay their bills and feed their families,” Dyer said. “We just want that consideration of what’s being done every day and the sacrifices that are being made by our folks around the state to provide those settings for those kids under 5 and doing it on literally razor thin budgets. And some are even losing money.”
Dyer said the leadership and guidance from the Division of Childhood and Early Childhood Education at DHS has been critical for those working to secure needed resources, and that AECA is doing their part by covering 90% of the costs for scholarship recipients of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Arkansas Scholarship Program, the scholarship program that assists early childhood teachers work toward their associate’s degrees.