Our nation’s early education workforce — commonly known as child care — is primarily made up of women. These women own, operate and care for children in early childhood care and education programs, or care for children in their homes, allowing parents to go to work everyday. Together, they form the “workforce behind the workforce.”
When N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 in 2020, all of our lives were turned upside down. In a matter of days, we were expected to start working from home, and at the same time transition our children to virtual school at home.
At my house, this meant my husband and I were carving out office space in our home alongside a high school senior and two college students who were suddenly back home — with a couple of extra dogs in tow. We upgraded internet service and added Wi-Fi boosters to make sure everyone had the internet support they needed.
Having older, more self-sufficient children made our transition relatively painless. It was far more difficult for parents of young children to make all of these changes and to effectively balance work, their child’s education and family life at home.
Many in our community did not have the option to work from home. Many workers had to get up and go to work even during these times. For working parents with young children, our local early care and education providers became a lifeline. They, too, have been recognized as an essential workforce.
Initially, there was an exodus of children from early childhood programs. This meant loss of tuition money, which is necessary to pay staff and keep centers open and serving children.
“I still had to pay staff,” says Moriah Stegall, director of the Appalachian State University’s Child Development Center. The ASU Child Development Center provides care for the children of faculty and students. “We were financially hemorrhaging, but I knew I might lose my staff and not get them back if I laid them off,” she says.
Mary Stiles of Merry-Land Academy and Child Care says in the beginning of the pandemic she was scared she was going to lose her business. Mary has been caring for children in Boone since 1994. Like everyone, workers in this industry didn’t know what was going to happen and were afraid and wondering if they would lose their jobs.
Julie Page cares for five children in her home-based business — Little Jewels Family Child Care Home in Vilas. Immediately, her enrollment decreased to two children.
“There was so much confusion and differing information in the beginning, I closed for three weeks, not knowing how long things would last,” she says. While she was closed, Julie delivered activity bags to the homes of the children in her program and visited with them from a distance.
Within weeks, the state ruled that licensed programs could only stay open if they agreed to enroll children of essential workers and implement an intensive cleaning and safety protocol. Cleaning supplies became scarce, and providers were making decisions about the additional exposure and safety of their own staff and families if new children entered their programs.
The demand for care for school-aged children also began to rise as many families were seeking out-of-home learning support for their children. Many care providers stepped up to the plate and began caring for school-aged children in their programs.
At Merry-Land Academy and Child Care, opening the doors to school-aged children meant they needed more staff, but Mary struggled to find workers. People were fearful of exposure to COVID-19, and the pool of potential workers who were receiving unemployment benefits were receiving higher wages from unemployment than this industry could afford to pay.
This meant the owner, Mary, who had been working toward retirement prior to COVID-19, went back to work. “I am at the center every morning by 7 a.m. to help manage the morning chaos when children arrive. I am also now the cook, along with being responsible for everything else,” Mary says.
Mary has earned the title, “the best cooker” from the children in her program. This new title fills her heart with joy, and makes the extra hard work worth it.
“Since I care for children in my home, I had to consider potential exposure my business caused to my family,” Julie says.
Julie lives at home with her husband, her daughter and granddaughter. As information became more clear about COVID-19 and its impacts, she reopened her home-based center. She enrolled new children for summer care, including two school-aged children.
“It was something we thought long and hard about,” she says. “Because these children are moving in and out of our ‘bubble’ every week, attending their school on some days and coming back to our home with the other children on other days.” The strict rules for cleaning required by the state for licensed child care programs to stay open have helped children stay healthy so far, “but it is a constant worry, and every time someone gets a runny nose, they have to go home,” Julie says.
As time passed, it became obvious that this workforce is necessary for other businesses to fully recover. Our legislators were paying attention and used COVID-19 relief funds to provide financial support in the form of loans, grants and bonuses to the workers who had stayed in their jobs. This has allowed the child care industry to keep their doors open and staff employed.
The state also provided cleaning and safety supplies like wipes, bleach, paper towels and personal protective equipment. Some providers also purchased air purifiers and disinfectant foggers with their own funds to keep their facilities safe for the children and staff. Providers say the help to pay their staff and to secure cleaning supplies has been welcome and helped them keep their footing.
We still don’t know the long-term impact of COVID-19 on our community’s economy.
Enrollment of children remains lower than before, which will impact income to these businesses as COVID-19 relief support dwindles. In Watauga County, we are fortunate that all of our programs have stayed open and are serving children while parents work. It is not the same in other North Carolina communities, and advocates across the state are working on solutions to support this industry for the long term.
Like others in the community, Julie, Mary and Moriah are yearning for things to be normal again, at the same time agreeing that what they considered normal in the past may never be again. Mary dreams of being able to visit her son in New Zealand. Julie misses the days of being able to allow children three of their favorite activities: dress up play, modeling clay and water tables — an activity center that uses water to assist with motor skills. None of these activities are currently allowed for group activity during the pandemic.
Moriah is seeing the benefits of the changes they made in their operations, which include lower enrollment, consistent teachers and a shortened schedule. With improved teacher-child ratios and children having more time at home with their families, she reports that children are more self-regulated.
“The children are more light-hearted,” Moriah says. She hopes we can use this opportunity to reimagine what work-home-life balance could really look like and how we can do things that are better for our kids moving forward. “While I want things to return to normal, I am concerned with the ‘rush for normalcy’ and a missed opportunity to redefine normal in a way that benefits children and families,” she says.
The Children’s Council is a partner in the North Carolina Partnership for Children (commonly known as Smart Start) system and is the Child Care Resource and Referral agency for Watauga County. We also administer our local NC Pre-K program, which provides high quality early childhood education to qualifying 4-year-olds, focused on ensuring the healthy growth and development of children and school readiness.
Our work with local early care and education providers runs deep as we provide support to this important workforce. We are astounded by their resilience in the face of adversity and recognize and celebrate them as women who are making their mark and doing extraordinary things for our community. While their primary focus is on serving children and their families, their impact on the larger business community is significant. They are providing safe, quality care for children during the day, allowing people to go to work.
The Children’s Council of Watauga County is a nonprofit organization providing programs and services for children in their first years of life and the adults who care for them. Visit www.thechildrenscouncil.org to learn more and to revie