October 25, 2021

Kansas child care needs more than a Band-Aid

This opinion piece by Health Fund President and CEO David Jordan and Kelly Davydov, president and CEO of Child Care Aware of Kansas, originally appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Sunday, October 24.

Every Kansas child deserves quality early learning experiences to improve school readiness and ensure student success.

Unfortunately, access to high-quality child care and early learning was already a challenge pre-pandemic for many Kansans, especially for children of families with low incomes, children of color and dual-language learners.

The child care shortage is statewide. In 2020, Child Care Aware of Kansas reported that 97% of counties did not meet desired capacity.

A recent Child Care Aware of Kansas and United Methodist Health Ministry Fund survey shows that the pandemic is pushing Kansas child care providers to the brink.

More than one-fourth of Kansas providers responded to the survey, representing 97% of counties. Most respondents reported the pandemic has been an extremely stressful time and has caused many to consider closing their programs. Providers are employing varied COVID-19 mitigation measures while enduring financial hardship, staffing shortages and stress.

Mitigation Needs Updated

The best ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are vaccination, masking, and social distancing.

According to the survey, most providers increased cleaning and handwashing while less than half had been vaccinating staff (47%), social distancing (36%) or masking staff or children (26% and 12%).

Clean environments and clean hands are important, but they are not the best mitigation tools for COVID-19.

Staffing Shortage Intensifies

Staffing shortages have plagued the Kansas child care industry; for most providers the pandemic has amplified the problem. Child care is essential for our workforce to thrive. Temporary closures and enrollment fluctuation have increased providers’ financial hardship and shortages.

The median wage for Kansas child care workers in 2019 was $10.20 per hour. Nationally, Kansas ranks 43rd in spending on preschool and 47th in drawing down federal funds, which is a missed opportunity to bring dollars to Kansas to improve early childhood education.

Stress Can Impact Kids

Pandemic-related staff shortages make it difficult to maintain low child-to-adult ratios. Low ratios help ensure children receive enough individual attention from adults, which is important for social emotional development, learning, and physical well-being.

Children build relationships with their caregivers that play a significant role in their social and emotional development — an important indicator for school readiness.

The surveyed providers shared they have been under increased emotional strain. That’s bad for their health and can be harmful to children. According to Child Care Aware of America, children can show the same emotions as their caregivers or have trouble adjusting to change.

Moving Forward

To recover from the pandemic, providers shared that they needed financial support, clear information, community support and higher pay for child care workers.

We can take immediate steps to help providers as they deal with impacts of the pandemic. Policymakers and officials should provide financial incentives tied to requirements for implementation of proven precautions. Child care providers need uniform guidelines and up-to-date information to facilitate their policies and conversations with families.

Beyond the pandemic, Kansas needs to invest in programs to ensure school readiness. Short-term and long-term approaches must focus on preventing inequities in access to safe, high-quality child care among people of color, low-income communities and rural counties.

Kansas child care providers and children deserve our support.

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© United Methodist Health Ministry Fund