Handle with Care: Early Childhood Providers at Risk

November 17, 2020

The Boston Opportunity Agenda and the Boston Birth to Eight Collaborative released a report on November 17 that quantifies an uneasy feeling many people have had: Our region’s childcare situation is in rough seas, with uncertainty gripping providers, parents—their employers—and kids themselves. Boston’s Child-Care Crisis: What a Pandemic Reveals documents how the childcare and early childhood education sector is taking a body blow from the pandemic. It is surviving by a thread on the bravery, hard work and love of providers, and needs systemic support to forestall a secondary crisis as the pandemic wanes. Not very promising, but there are feasible action steps we can take to ease out of this difficult moment and vastly improve and stabilize the sector for the long term.
After an introduction by BOA Executive Director Kristin McSwain, researcher Fernanda Campbell shared the numbers. Last year’s first annual State of Early Education and Care in Boston had provided a comprehensive survey of the sector’s health. At that point, 2017 data were the most recent available, but already showed supply flagging in relation to the number of young children in Boston. To find out how COVID-19 and the general economic shutdown were affecting childcare providers, the team updated the pre-COVID scenario with more recent data. From December 2017 to March 1, 2020, there was a 3 percent decline in the number of programs for 0–5-year-olds citywide. The brunt of that was borne by family childcare (FCC) programs, which lost 14 percent of their numbers. Center-based programs actually increased 4 percent, but on balance lost programs for 3–5-year-olds. Compounded with losses suffered from March through June this year, center-based programs are down 13 percent since 2017 and FCCs are down 25 percent.

Like so many problems, this one is not distributed equally. A few neighborhoods saw increases, while others, typically with lower average incomes, saw steep declines. Providers in predominantly Latinx neighborhoods were the most likely to have closed and not reopened as of September. The strongest predictor of providers reopening in September was the number of children whose tuition was supported by subsidies. As part of the state’s emergency measures, subsidies were paid even when children did not attend. Providers with 10 or more children with subsidies were more than four times as likely to reopen in September as those without any. By definition the 10+ students are center-based providers. Family childcare providers tend to be owned and operated by women, often women of color or with immigrant status. They are childcare experts but lack business training and may not be well connected to commercial banks and therefore Paycheck Protection Program benefits. All of these work on extremely slim margins, leaving their survival—and that of the long-term robustness of the sector—at risk. Demand may be lowered now, but what happens as society moves back to working outside the house?

Boston"s Childcare Supply Crisis report cover. Top half of image: A woman and child sit at t able wearing cloth face masks and rubbing hand sanitizer into their hands. A bottle of hand sanitizer is between them on the table. Bottom half of image: Over a white background, white text in a horizontal rectangle says "BOA 2020 Early Education & Care Brief." Larger blue text below that says "Boston's Child-Care Supply Crisis" and slightly smaller black text below that says "What a Pandemic Reveals". A thin gold rectanglular outline traces the outer borders of the report cover. A gold vertical rectangle is attached to it at the top right corner; white text inside of it says "Boston Birth to Eight". Read the full report

An all-star panel of early childhood professionals discussed different elements of the findings and how their organizations had been engaging with the sector. Panelists moderated by Boston Opportunity Agenda’s Pratima Patil included Ayesha Cammaerts, Children's Hospital Office of Community Health; Kim Lucas, MetroLab Network; James Morton, YMCA of Greater Boston; Amy O’Leary, Strategies for Children; and Melinda Weber, of Shared Services Massachusetts. From their very different vantage points, they contributed to common arguments on behalf of the early childcare sector.

For one, “families are not funding streams,” as many panelists noted, and have to be considered in their entirety—a family may have children in early care, but also in the K–12 system, for example. This is part of the growing understanding of the childcare sector not as a vertical industry but as “the connective tissue in society,” part of an ecosystem with countless interdependencies.

For another, we need to re-set our thinking and our subsequent funding and legislating in regard to early care, given the preponderance of new science indicating the first years of life are the most important for a person’s development. We habitually talk in flowery ways about children being our most precious resource, but we don’t back that up with money or action. “Our system was never designed for the needs of kids, but on parents’ and family needs,” said Strategies for Children’s O’Leary. “We need to come to grips with the significant funding needed, but it’ll be worth it. Think of early care as a public good, the way we do with K–12.” Businesses too, need to support the early ed sector, and as Morton of YMCA pointed out. “It’ll be to their own benefit.”

While parents today face competing fears—of catching or spreading disease, of their children falling behind, of not being a good employee or even losing their job, of not being a great parent, of all the decisions—providers are frantically adapting as they can. Fewer students, more space, more cleaning supplies and PPE, more learning kits to avoid sharing, more efforts in everything—for some it all depletes what margin they had and digs into their savings. To keep these dedicated and hardworking caregivers in business, for their own but above all society’s sake, the research team offered these recommendations:

  1. Advance the early care and education profession: Expand provider support initiatives.
  2. Build a better child-care business model: Modernize data systems.
  3. Increase access and affordability for all families: Expand state investment in child-care.
  4. Reform child-care financing.

Read the report.

As Melinda Weber from Shared Services Massachusetts observed, “A story is interesting, but a story with numbers is powerful.”

View the presentation slides.