June 6, 2022
The early education workforce is in crisis.
For two years, our country’s early childhood educators have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting families and children. They have done so in harrowing conditions, serving a population that has been largely ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, while navigating systemic inequities that include poverty-level wages for their work.
These circumstances show just how vulnerable early education has been to the pandemic, and reminds us how fragile the field is. One in seven early education jobs vanished during the pandemic, and workers are fleeing the profession in droves. Child care centers have closed, making it harder and harder for families with young children to find care at all.
Pandemic-driven child care closures have been especially hard on women, who were significantly more likely than men to leave their careers to take care of their children during the pandemic. According to the National Women’s Law Center, from February 2020 to January 2022, 1.1 million women left the labor force. Low-income women were hit hardest by fluctuating employment, housing and food insecurity, and COVID-19 itself—greatly affecting their and their families’ future earnings potential.
These facts certainly paint a dire picture. To better understand how early childhood educators fared during the pandemic, we conducted multiple surveys with hundreds of educators in Massachusetts as part of a large-scale, statewide study (the Early Learning Study at Harvard). We confirmed that, indeed, the pandemic has increased stress among early educators, including increasing frustration in the workplace, and led them to worry about their mental health, their finances, and their own children. For example, in our most recent survey, conducted with 650 educators in the summer of 2021:
● 56% said that the pandemic has affected their mental health.
● 41% said that the pandemic has caused them financial stress.
● 58% of early educators with their own children said they were worried for their children’s future.
The pandemic has shown us just how instrumental early education and care is to our economy, in addition to the undisputed benefits for young children’s academic and social-emotional development. What can be done to create such a system, help families and educators, and bring the benefits of early education to as many young children as possible?
For years, early education has existed as a complex and fragmented patchwork of programs without adequate public funding. Fixing that will cost money, no doubt about it. But without a massive federal investment like Build Back Better, which for now at least appears to have stalled in Congress, states and municipalities will need to step up and design the systems of early education and care that are currently lacking.
To do so, they can build on the lessons they learned from applying the $39 billion in pandemic relief that was dedicated to the child care industry. To date, these lessons point to three key actions governments can take to build a strong early education system: support a well-compensated workforce, invest in quality early educator and child relationships, and offer dynamic and collaborative professional learning opportunities.
- Support a well-compensated workforce. Early educators, who are disproportionately people of color, live in near-poverty conditions. The average prekindergarten teacher earns $15.35 per hour; the average child care worker earns only $12.24 per hour, and almost half receive public assistance. In 2021, using pandemic relief funds, New Mexico gave early educators monthly bonus payments of $1,500. Other states, including North Carolina and Washington, used the relief funds not only for bonuses, but also to increase benefits. But the pandemic relief funds are drying up. And in any case, one-time incentives like bonuses won’t help educators in the long term. Moreover, the expanded child tax credit—which helped both families and early educators pay for basic necessities such as rent, food, and child care—recently expired. Reimagining early education financing with a strategy that improves pay and working conditions for early educators and that captures the true cost of high-quality care is the only way forward—in the short run for economic recovery and stability and in the long run for a high-impact system that serves children and families, and drives economic and social progress.
- Invest in quality early educator and child relationships. Children learn, grow, and develop through high-quality relationships with adults. Research shows that engaging experiences with a responsive adult can foster better learning outcomes by minimizing the adverse consequences of stressful life situations, such as the pandemic or living in poverty. Recognizing that adults are at the center of high-quality early learning environments, states like Maine have expanded their Early Childhood Consultation Partnership to provide mental health consultation to early care and education programs. Arkansas used pandemic relief funds to coordinate and link Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC) program participants with professional development that focuses on high-quality daily practices. This kind of professional learning strategy builds adults’ capacity to promote children’s social and emotional development and is therefore also a workforce development strategy. In fact, a recent study found that IECMHC reduced staff turnover in early childhood programs and improved program quality.
- Offer dynamic and collaborative professional learning opportunities. Mentoring, coaching, scholarships, and professional networks can encourage the processes that lead to high-quality early education environments. But unlike K-12 educators, early educators have little access to affordable, high-quality professional learning, and many are isolated in their work. As part of our Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at Harvard, we’re working to change this through our Certificate in Early Education Leadership (CEEL), a job-embedded, online course of study that builds early educators’ knowledge, skills, and competencies. Across the network of 1,600 leaders involved in CEEL, we expected many to pause their studies during the pandemic. Instead, they told us that both the content and the connections were crucial for them during a time of isolation and professional challenge.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we can reflect on what we have learned, how we will slowly adjust to the new reality, and how we can transform early education and care in communities and states across the nation to create the robust system we need to support working families and propel our youngest learners on the path toward healthy development and school success.
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