Report: Pandemic deepened longtime problems in early education, opening doors to structural change

Photo of Cayla Bamberger

Child care has long operated on precarious economic footing, but the pandemic pushed the industry to the brink.

Before the pandemic, Connecticut faced a shortage of 50,000 infant and toddler child care slots, meeting the need of just a third of young children, the state has estimated.

Care was unaffordable for families who couldn’t qualify for the state subsidy program Care 4 Kids or afford remaining fees, and cash-strapped providers would choose between spotting the difference, investing in quality care and taking home a living wage.

“The pandemic has only made the situation worse,” said Lauren Ruth, research and policy director at CT Voices for Children.

At the height of the pandemic, fewer than one in four programs in the state were operational, according to CT Voices. By March 2021, the state was at 72 percent of its pre-pandemic program capacity, with 21 percent of programs permanently closed.

The data was released as part of a recent CT Voices for Children report, which provides an early state-specific look at last year’s impact on early education, including lost preschool slots and accredited programs, drops in enrollment, stubbornly high costs and decreased employment.

“2020 changed providers’ lives forever,” said Queen Freelove, who has been a family child care provider for about 30 years. But no amount of experience could’ve prepared her for the challenges last year brought to the job.

Freelove owns and operates Babe’s Day Care in New Haven, where her families make low or moderate incomes and qualify for government-subsidized care. She worked throughout the pandemic, shutting briefly when she caught the virus in December, but COVID-19 exacerbated many of the financial and operational issues she faced prior to last year.

The recent report, written by CT Voices’s Sarah Miller, called the pandemic a “historic disruption” to the state’s patchwork system of early childhood public programs and small businesses, but highlighted the opportunities it presents.

“(We’re) seeing the door swing open to policies that can fundamentally change how we support child care,” said Ruth, who supervised the report. “This moment has really created a reckoning in Connecticut.”

Freelove agrees. “We are not asking for a handout,” she said. “We are only asking for what is due to us, and what is due to us to be a better provider for the children of our future. Period.”

Preschools bore the brunt of the closures. Researchers reported a 15 percent drop in the number of preschool slots available, from about 65,000 to 55,000. Accredited programs also vanished in large numbers, suggesting investments in quality “left them without a (financial) buffer once the pandemic hit,” Ruth said.

For many families, the cost of care remained out of reach. This year, Connecticut ranked the fifth most expensive state for care at an average cost of $15,591 annually, and the wealthiest districts had preschool participation levels higher than average while the lowest income districts were consistently below.

“We can very easily undo a lot of hard work making sure our kids are ready to go to kindergarten,” said Ruth.

The industry was also unsustainable for its workers. Employment in the sector was down by 16 percent in February from the previous year, while overall employment declined 6 percent in the same time. Researchers reported the state’s child care workers’ families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than other families — 11.8 percent compared with 5.8 percent.

But providers and their advocates say the pandemic could pave the way for sweeping change.

“We’re at a really exciting time,” said Ruth. “A lot looks possible right now.”

Responding to the crisis, the Office of Early Childhood expanded family eligibility for Care 4 Kids and paid providers whether the kids showed or not. Commissioner Beth Bye also paused family fees and committed to increasing subsidies for accredited programs.

Child care has also seen an influx of federal funding, most recently via the American Rescue Plan, slated to bring an additional $276 million to Connecticut for early childhood. The state plans to distribute $120 million in grants to all licensed providers, with 25 percent allotted for staff and an extra $26 million for accredited providers. It will also spend about $50 million to cover child care for parents and guardians in workforce training programs.

The American Families Plan could bring in more federal dollars, including $200 billion for universal preschool and $225 billion over 10 years for subsidies.

“We have big lofty goals to make this a stable system,” said Ruth. “And we think it’s absolutely critical.”

Freelove is optimistic that more attention to high-quality child care could transform the industry for years to come.

“I want to see (the government) recognize providers for who we are,” she said. “Educators.”