While childcare providers have been deemed essential services in several states, many have still chosen to close. Whether that's due to having staff members who fall into high-risk categories or simply struggling to find the necessary cleaning materials, surviving the pandemic is going to be a challenge for a low-paying industry that's made up of 94 percent women, mostly women of color.
While monetary support is important, childcare groups like the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County (ELCOC) in Orlando, Florida have been doing what they can to give providers other forms of pandemic relief.
"At the peak of closures, just under 40 percent of the early childhood programs we contract with were closed," says Cindy Jurie, the director of research and special projects at ELCOC. "We have been trying since the beginning of this to support providers as best we can if they make the determination to say open."
One of the things ELCOC leadership did was host a weekly conference call with providers in order to give them up to date information and answer their questions as the pandemic and the confusion associated with it grew. "It allowed our early childhood community, whether they were open or closed, to stay in touch. We give updates, tell them what we know and don't know" as their CEO had conversations with the state Office of Early Learning, Jurie says. "That was a useful way of helping our provider community make informed decisions."
The weekly calls also provided ELCOC with a host of provider concerns that they could work to address, chief of which was the ability to get an adequate amount of cleaning supplies.
Whether providers tried their luck at bulk shops like Sam's Club or Costco, one-item-per-customer rules prevented them from getting adequate numbers of essentials like toilet paper and bottles of bleach. So, ELCOC started a community drive to get cleaning materials and other essential supplies for their providers.
Starting in March, the coalition began sending out weekly surveys in which providers can request supplies. Through partnerships with places like local restaurants and airports that have a plethora of cleaning supplies as air travel has dwindled and in-house dining ground to a halt, ELCOC has been able to source necessities that are then distributed through low-contact methods. "We have a limited team of staff who assemble boxes with social distancing. There's a set time on a weekly basis that providers can drive by, park in front of the building, and open the hatch of their car for minimal contact," Jurie says.
ELCOC has also been helping providers navigate the complicated landscape of coronavirus relief efforts. The organization's business program - which has been running for three years in collaboration with the Tupperware Foundation, Wells Fargo, and Florida Blue Health among others - has pivoted to providing pandemic-related consulting. "A lot of folks get into [childcare] for the purest of reasons," Jurie says, meaning that running a sustainable business isn't always top of mind for childcare providers. The program relies on volunteers from SCORE, a local organization that offers free business mentorship, to advise providers. During the pandemic, much of that mentoring has been focused on navigating the benefits offered through the CARES Act.
While Spina has done what she can for her staff during the pandemic - like allowing staff to use the academy's computers to sign up for unemployment as soon as upcoming closures were announced - the future is uncharted territory. "There's so much we need to do before people can come back in again. What are the right supplies? What's accessible? What's the staffing going to look like?" Spina wonders. "If we could get people to help us redesign our classrooms and think about our ability to continue to wash hands and use bathrooms and all that in a safe way … who are the experts that can help with that?"
She also sees a great potential for volunteers as Kinder Academy begins to welcome children back again someday. "More people to deal with food delivery to help mitigate food sharing" is something Spina would love to see, since it's not uncommon for toddlers to do things like share cookies with one another. She also imagines volunteers from organizations like horticulture groups come to help kids plant gardens and talk about life cycles to put the pandemic into perspective - that this is all just part of the cycle, too.
"We'll always need things, but I think we need more people than things," she says. "The human element."
This story was produced with support from Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push toward economic justice. Next City is one of more than 20 news organizations in the collective. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.