March 17, 2020

Some question why childcare centers are still open during public health emergency

The state’s message that childcare centers in New Mexico should remain open while everyone else is encouraged to stay home is the wrong message, say some early childcare educators.

The state has asked early childcare centers to stay open while public schools are closed and to accept more children by loosening regulations. But at the same time, the state is encouraging businesses to rely on remote workers and is encouraging the public to limit itself to gatherings of no more than 100 people. President Donald Trump said Monday that the public should not gather in groups of more than 10.

Related: State offers assistance to families and child care providers during emergency

According to a state report, 85.5 percent of early childcare workers are women and 55.1 percent identify as Latina or Hispanic.

And most make only a few dollars above minimum wage and don’t get health insurance benefits through their employers, say childcare advocates. The same report, compiled for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) in 2016, said that the average wage for a child care educator is $9.10 an hour. That translates into a maximum gross annual pay of $18,928 a year, according to the report.

“These childcare workers, I imagine they feel like they have no choice but stay open and go to work,” Ray Jaramillo, director of the Alpha School in Las Cruces told NM Political Report. “The state is considering us first responders.”

That childcare centers should provide childcare for first responders and medical workers who are all providing critical services during COVID-19, a type of coronavirus, has been a part of the message provided by the state.

Jaramillo said he closed the Alpha School. He said that for parents who need to be at their jobs, his center was able to work out an arrangement where some childcare workers are taking the individual children into their own homes or the workers are going to the children’s home and providing individualized care that way.

“It’s shocking to me. Every place is closed except childcare centers,” Jaramillo said.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) issued a policy statement regarding the pandemic recently and said early childcare workers should be paid “hazard pay” to care for “front line workers” during the spread of the virus.  

Kristi Goldade, founding teacher of Pando Little School in Albuquerque, agrees.

“They’re called essential workers, so give them hazard pay. Give [them] vouchers for medications and other supplies for the workers themselves and for their own families,” Goldade said.

Melissa Scott, director of Pando Little School, called it a “double injustice.”

“It’s more offensive asking a workforce that already has minority status to bear the brunt of this. It disproportionately affects women of color,” Scott said.

Jaramillo called it an “unfair burden.”

Matthew Bieber, spokesperson for the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said that “these concerns are top-of-mind.” He said the governor is planning a press conference this week to announce the administration’s “next steps” on the issue.

Some who are worried about early childcare workers also said this is an inequitable situation because many of these workers don’t receive health insurance benefits through their employer.

“What happens if they get sick?” Goldade asked.

According to the CYFD report, 46 percent of early childcare workers access some form of public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps.

Scott and Goldade also object to the difference between childcare workers and public school teachers, who are out of the classroom until April 6 while public schools are closed, while the state is encouraging early childcare educators to continue to work with children.

“The implication is that early childcare workers maybe don’t need to be protected quite so well,” Scott said.

But some childcare center business owners see it differently. Crystal Tapia, director of Noah’s Ark Children’s Academy in Albuquerque, said Noah’s Ark is open and providing an essential service.

“We’re meeting a critical need for working families who still have to work,” Tapia said. “It’s optional. No one is being forced to stay open.”

But NAEYC said in its policy statement that childcare programs “need significant investments if they are going to survive,” during the health and financial crisis the pandemic is causing.

Tapia said Noah’s Ark Children’s Academy is at about 25 percent of attendance, down from its usual 500 children a day. She said fewer children has meant that some of her staff are still working by providing meals to people who live in the neighborhood without cost even if the neighbors are not a part of Noah’s Ark programming. She said that while Noah’s Ark is always deep cleaned, her staff have sanitized and disinfected every “nook, cranny, material and toy” during the pandemic. She said that if anyone, child or worker, shows signs of illness, they cannot attend the center for 48 hours to a week. If a family member works in a “hot zone,” the child is picked up and dropped off at the curb, she said.

She has also established new protocols. She limited access to the facilities’ grounds. There is increased hand washing and everyone is expected to take their footwear off when they enter the building, she said. Tapia said most of the children still arriving at the center have single parent households or lack extended family nearby.

“We’re stepping in to provide a critical service,” Tapia said.

She also said she provides health benefits to her workers and that Noah’s Ark pays “several dollars higher than minimum wage.” Noah’s Ark is the largest licensed center in the state, Tapia said. The company has three facilities in Albuquerque.

“Our service is critical to the state and our goal is to unify. We’re all in this together and not to put anyone at a great risk or add stress.”

When asked about hazard pay, Tapia said the state is offering additional incentives during the public health emergency.

“How a private owner distributes that is up to them,” she said.

Part of the state’s announcement on Monday about providing childcare during the public health emergency included providing “licensed providers a premium by paying a differential of $250 per child for all children enrolled in child care assistance.”

Gabrielle Wheeler, director of East Gate Kids Learning Center, also in Albuquerque, said the center she directs is also staying open and that the center has stepped up hand washing and sanitizing.

“We’re trying to be a service to our community and help those who need it and we’re taking every precaution we can,” she said.

But Goldade said early childhood educators already suffer from high rates of burnout even in the best of times. According to the CYFD report, someone who majors in early childhood education has the lowest projected lifetime incomes.

“Why put this burden on the lowest paid workers?” Goldade asked.