Impact of COVID-19 on early education and care programs: 5 findings from the literature

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In March 2020, parents of young children struggled to adjust to life under the COVID-19 restrictions that limited in-person preschool education. At the same time, the early education and care (EEC) programs and educators that families depend on were also deeply impacted at every stage of the pandemic. Even though EEC is a $99 billion industry that supports workforce participation and the economy, keeping child care centers financially stable and operating safely has proved to be a substantial challenge for programs and the EEC workforce.

The impact of the pandemic has foregrounded EEC as essential infrastructure for our health, as well as our social and economic well-being. Recognizing that support for EEC workers and programs is crucial to our recovery, ICH, in collaboration with the Birth to Third Grade Partnership (B-3) in Cambridge, MA, recently conducted a review of recent literature on the impact of COVID-19 on this sector. B-3 supports quality of and access to EEC in Cambridge through coaching, mentoring, and professional development for teachers and directors in family-based programs and center-based programs; and by providing scholarships for families to access high-quality preschool education and care.

This post reviews 5 key findings on how COVID-19 has affected early care program operations that can guide paths forward for EEC in Cambridge and beyond:

  1. Operating costs increased as centers reopened during COVID-19 due to enhanced health and safety requirements and an overall decline in per-child tuition revenue. Keeping EEC facilities clean and COVID-safe for workers and children doesn’t come cheap. The cost of providing center-based child care that meets enhanced health and safety requirements is, on average, 47% higher than the cost of meeting pre-pandemic requirements, because providers are losing revenue due to reduction in program capacity, enrollment, and thus per-child tuition; and they need to purchase more cleaning supplies. It’s no surprise, then, that 56% of child care programs reported losing money with every day they remained open.
  2. Many EEC programs have permanently closed during the pandemic due to this growing financial burden, and there is evidence that minority-run and suburban programs have closed at higher rates. 200,000 jobs were lost in early education and care in 2020 – many due to closures, declining enrollment, and increased operating costs.
  3. Family child care programs, already on the decline before COVID hit, have also closed at higher rates during the pandemic. While family child care provides affordable, quality, and often culturally reflective care to their surrounding communities, structural barriers (including a lack of support for business development), and declining enrollment due to increased competition from other care options have driven this decline. Given these trends, family child care programs were indeed vulnerable both to closing and experiencing income loss at higher rates than other types of provider during the pandemic.
  4. EEC programs have struggled to access public support and relief programs despite being significantly impacted by the pandemic. As a result,  educators have dipped into their own pockets to stay afloat. For example, one analysis revealed that PPP Loans issued in 2020 reached fewer than 6% of child care businesses nationally–likely due to difficulty navigating the program. Child care providers have instead taken on debt, spent down savings, cut costs, and sacrificed their own incomes to cover operating cost increases on their own. Meanwhile, relying on personal resources to make up for higher operating costs has exacerbated existing financial and mental health strain in the EEC workforce, who already earn  low wages; experience high rates of food insecurity and mental health strain; and often rely on public benefits.
  5. Some EEC providers have increased per-child tuition to cover cost increases-but such increases leave low-income families struggling to afford quality child care. For a family of four living at the poverty level, average tuition increases alone would amount to 8-11% of their annual income. Meanwhile, there has been a decline in enrollment among low -income children: while overall enrollment decreased between pre-and post-pandemic, low-income children experienced the steepest declines.

COVID-19 has amplified concerns for EEC programs and has elevated what many early educators, caregivers, and advocates have been saying for many years: robust public support is needed to foster sustainable and equitable early care programs. Supporting the mental and financial health of EEC workers, low-income families, and family-based care providers is also essential to strengthening the EEC sector into the future.

Several policies have already begun to address the challenges exacerbated by COVID-19. In Massachusetts, Governor Baker recently passed a $30 million bill providing operational support for center- and family-based programs, and at the federal level, President Biden included provisions for child care support in the March 2021 COVID-19 relief bill.

The Birth to 3rd Grade Partnership also continues to provide resources and support for the EEC community in Cambridge. B3 helped centers navigate the PPP and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) processes; and as centers reopened B3 staff and consultants worked with teachers, directors, and family-based programs to set up their spaces and establish practices that were in line with COVID-related EEC protocols. ICH has also supported B3 by guiding decisions for future support and programming through evaluation work. By working together, and across scales of intervention, we can support and grow early education and care as we continue our recovery from the pandemic.

Julia Curbera, MCP

Research Associate