Early Care and Education Programs During COVID-19

Persistent Inequities and Emerging Challenges

This report takes a closer look at the impact of COVID-19 on early care and education (ECE) programs, staffing and disparities using data collected by the Center by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) through the 2020 California Early Care and Education Workforce Study.

The ECE system has been under-resourced and undervalued since well before the pandemic (McLean et al., 2021). Low pay and poor working environment have long plagued the ECE industry as key drivers of chronic high turnover rates and teacher staffing shortages in the field (U.S. Department of Treasury, 2021). Additional disparities within the system place providers on vastly different financial footing as a function of the type of program in which they operate, their access to public funding, and characteristics of the families they serve (Austin et al., 2018; Whitebook et al., 2014). The pandemic has exacerbated these pre-existing issues.

Key Findings

1. In California, child care operates through a market-based mixed-delivery system that is funded with a combination of federal, state, and local funding streams, but largely relies on what parents can afford to pay. 

  • About 27 percent of centers and 12 percent of FCC programs hold contracts with Head Start or the California Department of Education. 
  • The vast majority of centers and FCCs are operating either entirely on family fees or with a mix of family fees and non-contract-based subsidies, such as vouchers.

2. The ECE workforce in California, while almost exclusively female, is highly diverse in terms of cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds; educators are highly reflective of the children and families they serve.

3. The pandemic had dire consequences for the entirety of an already under-resourced California ECE sector, but the levels of stress were not borne equally by all programs and exacerbated long-entrenched disparities within the sector based on program type and funding.

4. Family child care (FCC) providers, who work in their own homes, faced the greatest economic challenges and were pushed further into precarity.

  • FCC programs (62 percent) remained open throughout the pandemic at higher rates than centers (23 percent), largely because they were lacking the resources to withstand a temporary closure.
  • FCC providers (76 percent) were about four times more likely than center-based directors (19 percent) or teaching staff (19 percent) to report a loss of income during the pandemic.
  • FCC providers (43 percent) were about three times more likely than center directors (15 percent) to report that they were unable to pay themselves.
  • A higher share of FCC providers reported that they worked more unpaid hours during the pandemic (66 percent) than center directors (57 percent) or teaching staff (13 percent). 
  • The majority of FCC providers (56 percent) responded that they did not receive any financial support during the pandemic, except for the state funds for essential supplies that were made available for all licensed programs.

5. Center-based programs were more likely than family child care providers to struggle with staffing challenges, changes in program operations, and reduced attendance.

  • Center directors (59 percent) were more than twice as likely to report increased staffing costs during the pandemic as a challenge, compared to FCC providers (27 percent).
  • The vast majority of centers (87 percent) made various staffing changes, including layoffs, furloughs, and reduction of hours.
  • Job turnover among teaching staff was about 36 percent; turnover among assistant teachers (58 percent) was higher than among teachers (32 percent).
  • More than 95 percent of all centers, regardless of center funding type, stated that finding teaching staff with desired qualifications was a challenge, and 78 percent of centers reported difficulty in finding staff due to the compensation they are able to offer. 
  • About 95 percent of centers experienced a decline in attendance compared to about 64 percent of FCC providers.

6. While the majority of centers struggled with staffing shortages, Head Start and state-contracted centers tended to have better program stability than centers without contract-based funding.

  • Centers without contract-based funding (64 percent) were more likely than Head Start (39 percent) and Title 5 centers (47 percent) to have experienced reduction in teaching staff during the pandemic.
  • Compared to centers without contract-based funding, Head Start and Title 5 programs were less likely to have implemented various staffing changes, including layoffs, furloughs, and reduction of hours, perhaps due to stable financial support directed to these programs during the pandemic.
  • Turnover rates of teaching staff were much higher in centers without contract-based funding than in Head Start and Title 5 programs; turnover rates among assistant teachers in non-contracted programs (72 percent) were more than double the rates reported in Head Start (26 percent) or Title 5 programs (36 percent).

Recommendations for Policymakers

1. Provide additional pandemic relief and recovery funds specifically designated for compensation and to address documented inequities among programs. 

  • Compensation should be sufficient in order for FCC providers to be able to pay themselves and for FCCs and centers to recruit new and retain current staff. 
  • Ensure compensation funds reach the entirety of the sector, not just those programs already participating in the state’s subsidized system through contracts or vouchers.
  • Provide targeted financial relief to FCCs in response to the acute financial insecurity they have experienced during the pandemic.

2. Develop a methodology to identify, and then fund, the true cost of providing high-quality ECE in both center- and home-based settings. 

  • Ensure the methodology accounts for a wage scale that establishes the floor at the regionally assessed living wage, articulates minimum benefit standards (health insurance, paid leave, retirement), scales up to at least parity with Transitional Kindergarten and elementary school teachers, and provides for non-contact hours (i.e., paid preparation/planning time).
  • Use the true cost to establish appropriate levels of funding for ECE programs, rather than basing it on market rates.

3. Prioritize stable contract-based funding arrangements for home-based providers and centers. 

  • Contracts should guarantee a base funding amount—accounting for a specific number of publicly funded spots, rather than using volatile enrollment or attendance levels.

4. Ensure conditions for all early educators to have a choice to join a union and engage in collective bargaining. 

  • Ensure opportunities to expand the reach of collective bargaining as a strategy to support the acquisition of well-articulated health, safety, and working condition standards for FCCs and center-based staff throughout the state. 

5. Ensure that all state policies are made in consultation with early educators.

  • Establish practices that center the experiences, intellect, and leadership of early educators. 

6. Establish simple data-collection protocols to examine and report the utilization and impact of pandemic relief and other state funding in order to inform future policies and resource allocation.

  • Ensure that lead agencies draw on existing data before requiring redundant information of programs or individuals and invest in systems to streamline reporting for recipients.
  • Data collection and reporting should include all programs regardless of setting, funding source, or funding mechanism.