#7: Responding To A Crisis — Jen Roberts, President of Agenda for Children and Executive Director of New Orleans Early Education Network— A Series Documenting How New Orleans Educators and Schools Are Reacting To COVID-19

This is the seventh in a series of interviews and Q&As conducted by the Cowen Institute with New Orleans educators to highlight how schools are managing with the current COVID-19 outbreak.

This is an edited Q&A email exchange with Jen Roberts, President of Agenda for Children and Executive Director of New Orleans Early Education Network (NOEEN). It focuses on early education in the city.

Cowen Institute: How is COVID affecting early childhood education in the city?

Roberts: Formal, licensed child care has largely ceased to operate. Of 149 centers that were in operation in February, only 27 (18%) are currently open. Many families no longer need child care because a parent may be newly unemployed, or they are able to rely upon their network of family, friends, and neighbors to care for their children.

What is Agenda doing during this time?

Agenda’s responsibilities during this time are to coordinate and facilitate all emergency respite child care for all essential personnel for Parishes covering nearly one-third of the State of Louisiana. While the Louisiana Department of Health has strongly urged that all children stay at home if at all possible, we need to coordinate Respite Child Care Services for parents / guardians who have no other option for child care, as they are essential to public order during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Our data tells us that there are approximately 23,700 ages 0–5 in the Greater New Orleans metropolitan area whose parents are employed in an essential industry, of whom over 5,500 have parents employed in the healthcare industry. Many of them need care.

Are all daycares and early childhood centers closed? If not, why are some allowed to remain open?

Louisiana has allowed child care centers to remain open, and asked them to prioritize care for essential workers. The Louisiana Department of Education and Department of Health have promulgated new guidelines to ensure children and staff safety, including restricting group sizes to 10 (including adults) for most age groups and reducing the group size to five (including adults) for infants. Some states have taken a different approach, and effectively shut down all centers, and asked centers who wish to reopen to apply for an emergency license that restricts them to serving only the children of essential personnel. The primary rationale for permitting child care centers to remain open is that many essential workers would be unable to work without child care.

Are early childhood staff and caregivers being paid if their facilities are closed?

Some are. We surveyed all centers in our regions at the start of the pandemic, and, at that time, 48% of New Orleans centers that had closed reported that they were still paying staff. However, we expect that this number is likely lower now. Once the $600 unemployment checks become more widely available, most unemployed teachers will see their income actually increase relative to their normal pay. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the average weekly wages of workers employed in the private child care industry in New Orleans is $511 per week. This figure includes administrators, and, if anything, represents a higher wage than many teachers earn. With up to $247 in state benefits and $600 in federal unemployment benefits available to unemployed individuals, the average child care worker may see a raise of as much as 66% through unemployment benefits. This makes our advocacy case for higher pay for these critical workers even stronger.

Does COVID put the economic situation of many early childhood centers at risk? What can be done to counteract this?

It absolutely puts centers’ survival at risk. Most centers are very small businesses that operate at very thin profit margins, and some even operate at a net loss. Closures due to COVID-19 present an immediate financial challenge for centers because most are not collecting full tuition. Centers that serve larger numbers of publicly funded children may actually be better positioned to survive the crisis because programs like Early Head Start, Head Start, LA4, NSECD, City Seats, and CCAP are reimbursing center based on enrollment, rather than attendance. Over the long term, a slow-paced economic recovery could imperil many centers, as continued high levels of unemployment will reduce demand for formal child care because: 1) fewer employed parents means fewer people need child care; and 2) even employed parents may opt to continue to use informal family, friend and neighbor care, particularly if they feel they are able to provide an unemployed friend or relative with some financial support by paying them for child care. Additionally, if we continue to see outbreaks for months, parents may have reservations about placing their children in group care. These steps should be taken:

  • Child care needs a more comprehensive bailout to ensure that parents have somewhere safe, affordable and reliable to care for their children when they are ready and able to return to work.
  • Open centers need grants to compensate them for the greatly increased labor costs they are experiencing from reduced group sizes and lower ratios required by emergency guidelines.
  • Open centers need help getting the materials they need to ensure that they can provide care safely, including cleaning supplies, thermometers, masks, and gloves.
  • Teachers need retention grants to compensate them adequately for work that puts them in harm’s way every day during the pandemic and increased pay when the pandemic subsides.
  • Louisiana needs to follow the model of New Mexico and guarantee health insurance coverage for any child care worker who contracts COVID-19, as well as their family members. Most child care centers do not offer health insurance benefits, which means that many child care teachers are uninsured. Given the very real risk that many may contract COVID-19 because they are caring for children at high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their parents’ occupations, we need to do what we can to make sure that they can at least access affordable health care in the event that they contract the virus.
  • Most centers need help completing applications for SBA loans and grants, and we need to expand the amount of grants (potentially structured as forgivable loans) available to centers because most cannot realistically take on additional debt.
  • Many centers rely primarily on tuition payments for their revenue, which may mean that they’ll be particularly vulnerable if most strategies to support centers are based on their payments from public funding streams.

What are you hearing from families right now that are their biggest challenges or needs?

As centers reopen, we will need to ensure that staff and families receive training and resources related to trauma-informed care. Financial insecurity, worry about jobs, isolation and the potential inability to meet children’s basic needs has created an enormous amount of stress for parents and caregivers. If families don’t get support (both material support and mental health support), we may see this stress transform into toxic stress, which can have long-term negative effects on children’s brain development. Teachers and families need strategies and knowledge to help children navigate these massive changes to their routines, and will need strategies and patience as they help children return to their usual routines. Young children and babies lack the language to express their stress and worries, and may “act out” by becoming defiant or “regressing” on behaviors or skills that they had previously mastered (such as potty training). Centers can also provide resources to teachers and parents to help them recognize and manage their own stress so they “can put on their own oxygen mask” before they can help children navigate these changes and stress.

The mission of the Cowen Institute is to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond.