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How are our young children doing? A week of listening

Since the early days of COVID-19, I’ve heard stories of child care teachers juggling work and school through a pandemic, of Smart Start employees leading a rural community’s response, of home visitors acting as lifelines for vulnerable families with even more vulnerable young children.

We’re moving into a fall when some young children will continue with video screens as their teachers while others wear masks for potentially risky in-person care. A fall when some child care centers, unsure they have the resources to survive, welcome older children without a place to go. A fall when many parents lack paid sick days and must choose between their health and their jobs.

“As we continue moving through this change … I believe we will see more people leaning on child care centers for balancing work and family,” says Shawna Daniels, a Smart Start program coordinator who has worked to support child care facilities through this crisis.

“With a virus as contagious as this one, it can be scary knowing that nobody is truly ‘safe’ from it and that every day that child is in care there is a risk,” says Daché Browne, an early childhood teacher at Kids R Kids Learning Academy in Charlotte, who has worked throughout the year.

When asked what keeps her up at night, Julie Smith, a home visitor in eastern North Carolina, says “the fear that multiple systems are not in these children’s lives right now giving them a little bit of support to help them feel loved and special when their families are not able.”

I want to hear more. There are just as many stories as there are young children in this state — more than 600,000. (An accurate count will depend on this year’s Census.) I’m looking forward to getting on the road and showing up in communities. But, like many of us, I’m stuck in one place for now.

That’s why I’m doing a virtual listening tour next week, speaking with parents, teachers, child care directors, and home-based providers, local leaders, advocates, and others across the state and across the early care and education space. Without a specific story in mind, I’m looking forward to hearing in a clearer way. EdNC gives me the chance to question what being a reporter means all the time, and I’m grateful for a week to simply listen.

We’ll discuss the biggest challenges and opportunities for a stronger, more equitable early learning system, and I’ll be grounding my early learning coverage in these insights this fall. If you don’t already follow my work, sign up below for my bi-weekly newsletter, Early Bird. I’ll be sharing insights from the listening tour and stories the tour inspires down the road.

To kick off the tour and start my conversations, I asked four of the early learning experts I’ll be speaking with next week what recent months have taught them and what their biggest hopes and concerns are for young children and families across our state.

‘Even just a few months of deprivation from appropriate learning experiences can have a huge effect.’ 

Mary-Margaret Kantor, early childhood professional and education administrator at Central Piedmont Community College

Some children are already back in child care settings, and some will return to school in the fall. Others will still be taught or cared for remotely. What are your biggest concerns for young children in the next year of early learning and development (in remote and in-person settings)?

  • Julie Smith, Child First home visitor in eastern North Carolina:

    Remotely, the benefits are the obvious: staying healthier (hopefully).  But other concerns relate to families that work and do not have appropriate child care available. A neighbor might “check in” or “ TV babysit” so mom can work. These children will suffer significantly due to lack of structured learning and socialization, food, and exercise. 

    Many of our rural families do not have finances to afford internet services or platforms to use it. The ones that do have this availability sometimes have parents or a caregiver that lack the ability to provide structure around when to use these items. These children will suffer with anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep patterns, inability to get along well with peers and other adults, and possible obesity with convenience foods only available, and lack of outdoor time and exercise.
  • Daché Browne, infant/toddler teacher at Kids R Kids Learning Academy in Charlotte:

    Each scenario comes with different concerns. With the children that are back in child care, the obvious concern would be for their health and the health of their families. With a virus as contagious as this one, it can be scary knowing that nobody is truly “safe” from it and that every day that child is in care there is a risk.

    My concern for children in remote care is that children are not benefitting as much socially as they would in a child care center. So much happens every day, and there are ample learning opportunities in a classroom that they may not get at home, especially with working parents.
  • Mary-Margaret Kantor, early childhood professional and education administrator at Central Piedmont Community College:

    I am concerned that they will not receive the type of brain-building experiences and the access to resources they would receive if they were in a high-quality early education program with highly qualified teachers.  The early years are so absolutely essential to all later learning and opportunities in life, and even just a few months of deprivation from appropriate learning experiences can have a huge effect. 

    Screens or underprepared caregivers cannot replace human interaction with skilled teachers in a young child’s development in any area — cognitive, language, social/emotional — and keeping children remote without the types of environment and experiences we know benefits them will have long-lasting detrimental effects.
  • Shawna Daniels, Healthy Starts coordinator at Orange County Partnership for Young Children:

    My concerns for children who are returning to centers is related to lower ratios (which IS good) and how that will ultimately reduce the number of spaces available for families. Centers possibly closing for a variety of reasons will reduce the availability of both quality and reasonably priced care. 

    When considering children whose families may opt to not return to group care, I join many advocates in worrying about how they will gain the developmentally appropriate supports that they would normally have in child care. How will families be able to manage the needs of their children and work from home or work on limited schedules?

    I have found that centers that can connect with families have done as much as they can to engage with the children (reading books, doing circle time, providing activities, and doing FaceTime/in-time chats with the children) as well as hosting family meetings, providing resources, and doing virtual family conferences to keep the connection. If a family decides to opt out of care, where will these supports happen? And these concerns are mostly for “typically/normatively developing children.” I imagine these supports would be desperately needed for exceptional children with more developmental needs. 

‘If the last few months has taught anyone anything, it should be how essential child care workers are and how important it is to wash your hands.’

Daché Browne, early childhood teacher at Kids R Kids Learning Academy in Charlotte

What has your work over the past few months taught you about how North Carolina can move toward a more equitable and stronger early childhood system?

  • Smith: There needs to be more support for working families when it comes to child care subsidies and programs available. Inclusion childcare (special needs) is also a significant need for many of the families we serve. Early care and intervention are essential to our future, and without Head Start programs being open there are even more significant concerns. A sliding scale for subsidized child care would benefit many families and be less of a strain on the economy.  Child care centers need to continue to follow the safety standards put in place to protect children and adults.
  • Browne: The last few months have reinforced how important my work is, how necessary it is. I truly believe that teachers in child care are underappreciated and underpaid for all that they do. If North Carolina raised the pay of early childhood educators, I believe more educators would feel appreciated, more educators would stay in the field longer, and additional respect would be given to the career. If the last few months has taught anyone anything, it should be how essential child care workers are and how important it is to wash your hands.
  • Kantor: I have learned just how dedicated Mecklenburg County is to providing high-quality early childhood experiences to its youngest citizens and to helping them and their families lift out of a previously “non-mobile” society.

    I have seen that money can be found, efforts can be made, services can be secured, and multiple entities can work together to give all young children a more equitable educational beginning. We just need more of it and for longer periods of time.
  • Daniels: Since mid-March, I have come to see how resilient child care providers can be — many have pivoted from their traditional models of care into a huge variety of virtual options to support families. Providers will always want to do what is best for children. 

    What I’ve noticed the rest of my community realizing is the importance of child care to the logistics of our society.  Though most parents have always known that they wouldn’t be able to go to work without child care options, I’m not always sure their employers, community leaders, or state policy makers were keyed into the needs of working parents. 

    In Phase One, there became this important recognition of how much child care meant to “essential/front line workers” and so, centers were allowed to stay open just for these important members of our society.  This, in turn, identified child care providers as essential.  I’m not sure many people even thought of it as such before. Being identified as essential became the platform on which advocates could shine a bright light — these essential employees need more supports!  I believe it was this advocacy that led to the funding of emergency care stipends, bonuses for center staff who were working during the first months of isolation, and subsidy payments for all essential/first line workers, including child care providers.  

    As we continue moving through this change (and public schools are moving to full virtual learning), I believe we will see more people leaning on child care centers for balancing work and family — where will the displaced school-agers go while their parents are working and the children need to do virtual school work?

‘(Centers) continue providing care in what has been a very difficult situation, even while they don’t think they will be open another month.’

Shawna Daniels, Healthy Starts Coordinator at Orange County Partnership for Young Children

What has given you hope over the past few months?

  • Smith: That we are able to provide mental health supports at a distance. Families continue to be resilient, but at what cost to their children? Knowing that we are all in this together, even with people that don’t quite understand.  Some of the children we serve have benefitted from having a consistent caregiver in their life with limited transitions, and they have been able to heal a bit better.
  • Browne: Nothing has given me more hope than knowing that every day, despite the circumstance, that I have the power to impact a child’s life in some shape or form. That is all. There is so much power behind my work and so much purpose that drives what I do every day. The past few months have been filled with uncertainty and failed attempts to get this virus under control. To be honest, that can be extremely discouraging. Knowing that my job has real purpose is what gives me hope every day.
  • Kantor: I have been lifted up by the response of the community college students who have received full financial support to earn their degree in early childhood education in order to go out and better serve the programs educating Mecklenburg’s pre-kindergarten program. 

    These were already committed students, but in receiving these funds that allow them to take more classes at a time, access resources that are allowing them to perform better in their classes, and spend more time on their studies, they have risen to even higher levels of achievement and drive.  I have more hope than ever that our young children can go into programs where their minds, hearts, and souls are going to be nurtured and they are going to become the great students and contributors to Mecklenburg County in the future.
  • Daniels: Every Thursday morning in Orange County, OC Partnership for Young Children and Child Care Services Association co-moderate a directors’ meeting that provides a place for information (we host licensing consultants, Health Consultants, Environmental Health specialists, and staff from the county subsidy office), community opportunities (we’ve invited different programs in the county who wanted to know how they might support centers), and center-to-center sharing around best practices. 

    Hearing how these amazing administrators are finding their way through what was once the “muck” of DCDEE guidance is inspiring. They feel comfortable enough to ask for help, share what they are doing, and continue providing care in what has been a very difficult situation, even while they don’t think they will be open another month. 

    Anywhere from 12 to 25 centers are represented weekly (that’s roughly one-fourth of our county’s rosters), from family child care homes to large facilities; individually owned to corporate centers – they are coming together and supporting each other. I’ve asked several times since March if they want to change the time, stop having the meetings, or change the set-up and have heard resoundingly that they DO NOT want anything to change.  If they aren’t able to attend the actual meeting, they receive minutes from the meeting and can ask questions directly to anyone who has shared information. 

    We have recently started hosting a monthly evening meeting (Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m.) for any centers (especially FCCHs) who aren’t able to attend midday meetings. 

    I want to make sure these center administrators do not feel like they are “out here alone” but have a system of support in place to manage any required changes that have to be made.

When thinking about young children’s realities and futures in North Carolina, what keeps you up at night? 

  • Smith: Honestly, the fear that these children are being significantly neglected. I checked in on a family (from a distance with mask and gloves) at 3:30 in the afternoon to find parents asleep and four children (under the age of 6) opening the door while mom and dad were asleep upstairs (that keeps me up).  The fear that multiple systems are not in these children’s lives right now giving them a little bit of support to help them feel loved and special when their families are not able.
  • Browne: When thinking about young children and their realities, the one thing that keeps me up at night is some of their home life. In the classroom we provide the safest environment, and it makes me sad that at some of their homes that might not be the case.
  • Kantor: I continue to be frustrated and amazed at those who refuse to believe the scientific hard evidence which shows that the first five years are absolutely crucial to the remainder of an individual’s life and how that person will contribute to society. 

    We are not doing young children and families a “favor” when we provide the best quality early education. We’re serving our society and our world and only making it better for everyone’s progeny. 

    Without the right start and the mind stimulated for future learning, there will be many more asking for help from society rather than contributing gainfully to it. It is astounding that those who make decisions of power cannot see this very obvious correlation (if they are not willing to give it causation).
  • Daniels: I’ve been thinking about how slow the response can be for state-funded programs. It may take a year before any programs can be created to support children who do stay at home and the adults who are caring for them. I keep trying to think about how the work OCPYC is doing can be used to address the needs of children who are not in centers, but still need developmentally appropriate care. 

    I also can’t help thinking about children in traumatic situations where they lack caring adults and are being victimized without anyone to help them (because we don’t know its happening).  It’s outside of the general scope of my work, but I can’t help but consider the needs of these helpless children who no longer have a place that cares for them. 

‘Education is key for adults as well.’

Julie Smith, Child First home visitor in eastern North Carolina

What issues that affect young children do you wish received more attention or were better understood?

  • Smith: The lack of child care funding, appropriate child care, and transportation. Children whose parents don’t work still need child care. These families may suffer from significant mental health issues and, during their treatment process, these children need to be socialized and with other children. Some psychotropic medications have significant side effects, and young children are left dealing with this. These families may wait for years to receive disability, and then funding isn’t available. 

    Families need assistance with electric bills and education on how to save money on your electric bill. Education is key for adults as well. Many families get their power turned off but last week had the A/C at 60 degrees with the doors open, unaware of the correlation between the two. Children suffer in the end.

    Head Start and NC Pre-K are wonderful resources, but the family lacks child care supports in the summer if they are lucky enough to get a space (right now all year). These programs are essential and need to provide transportation.  Families we serve need these programs open and transporting children if caregivers do not have available transportation, as many do not.
  • Browne: One of the things I wish people understood about young children is how a lot of what happens to them in early life determines who they become as an adult. I think people underestimate the power of a child’s mind. I think that if people knew exactly how much of a child’s early life experiences (5 years and younger) impact their adult personality and their mental state, that they would be more conscientious of what they say and do around young children. Children are always watching and always learning. We need to vow to do better as adults for the success of young children’s future.
  • Kantor: I want all to understand that we can’t just start contributing to a child’s early education at age four and think that one year of a high-quality program is going to get them on equal par with other children entering kindergarten that have had full access to positive developmental experiences since birth and before.  A child’s development and education begin in utero — and truly even before with the mother’s prenatal health. 

    Children need to have high quality care and experiences in the womb and throughout their early lives — through the pre-kindergarten year, and then through the kindergarten year and beyond — if we are truly going to give them a fair and equitable chance to develop to their full and rightful potential.
  • Daniels: Mental health supports for young children, developmentally focused strategies for families, and increased food and housing subsidy for families with non-school-age children. There have been some supports, but the increase in unemployment is bound to change or impact families’ abilities to feed young children who were once eligible for CACPF (Child and Adult Care Food Program), but aren’t attending child care.

    Universal and continued preparation for kindergarten for children 3-5 years old. If we had a system of universal pre-K, there would be more access to children 3-6 years old and better ways to support them.
Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.