As I drove to work this morning, a mom wearing a mask was dropping off her children, also wearing masks, at a childcare center. Like me, she was heading to work for the day and needed a safe place for her children to be while she filled her essential role. Continuing my morning commute, I thought about the childcare workers and preschool teachers who are there at that childcare center on the front lines, doing the work that allows others to work.

In Pennsylvania, childcare providers rely on multiple, disconnected funding streams to maintain operations. Monies received are less than ideal to support best-practice operations and sufficient wages for early learning educators. Still childcare remains expensive for families; it often costs a working family more than their monthly rent or mortgage payment.

Now recommended classroom sizes are decreased to limit spread of the novel coronavirus. This equates to lower capacity rooms, leading to lower revenue for childcare providers, while staffing requirements remain the same to keep those classrooms open. Additional mandatory cleaning regimens need additional paid time to complete, and disinfecting supplies cost extra money. That is, if the child care staff can find the necessary cleaning supplies and sanitizer available on the store shelves.

Childcare teachers are essential.

They provide a safe, clean, educational, nurturing place for children. Following best-practice standards they work with children on fundamental brain development, physical wellbeing, social emotional readiness, and early literacy skills necessary for a successful transition to kindergarten. They are helping parents raise their children.

These heroic and indispensable childcare workers we depend on every day are primarily female. In fact, 94% of childcare workers nationwide are women, and a majority are women of color. In 2018, before the current economic crisis, the median wage for child care workers in Pennsylvania was only $21,940 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many women working in child care live in single income households, and many rely on various public health and social service programs. The overwhelming childcare cost burden for working families in Pennsylvania averages $9,421 per year per child. That’s a median of $785 per month per child, according to Child Care Aware of America.

The child care system is broken. We’re offering poverty wages to vital yet overworked and undervalued women who are caring for our children so that higher paid mothers can work, only to turn around and pay the majority of their wages to cover high childcare costs so other women can care for their children. There has to be a better way.

Without available, affordable child care, workers with children cannot return to work. Our nation is slowly rebooting the economy, and families need safe places for their children while they work. However, the schools and the majority of childcare spaces remain closed. How can we rebuild our economy without adequate and fully funded childcare?

There is a growing list of best practice guidelines from the CDC for childcare and preschools to follow for re-opening. It’s an insurmountable list. Guidelines include: mask wearing for all children age 3 and older, naptime cots spaced six feet apart, and hand washing every time every child touches a shared object. And if you haven’t been around a 3-year-old lately, a 3-year-olds touch EVERYTHING, multiple times, even when you ask them not to touch.

The full list of guidelines can be found on the CDC website by searching “Guidance for Child Care Programs that Remain Open.” These extensive recommendations are on top of already rigorous Early Learning Standards set forth by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning. As childcare providers grapple with these new procedures, they are being asked to do the impossible. Check more boxes off of multiple lists with less money, all while keeping our children safe, happy, and healthy.

If one thing has become more clear in this time of COVID-19, it is that we have failed to create responsive and sustainable systems around childcare. This is not a partisan issue; this is a human issue.

In order for the economy to be supported, the people who keep us going need to be supported. Children, families, childcare workers, childcare providers, working parents, and stay-at-home caregivers all need to be supported. Pennsylvania will be left behind if our children and families are left behind. Without a substantial influx of financial support, safe, affordable, reliable child care will not be available. Without wide-ranging investments at the foundational level, we’ll rebuild childcare on crumbling infrastructure.

Investments in early learning result in many evidence-based health benefits that accompany inclusive, comprehensive childcare. Healthy children become healthy adults. Healthy adults are productive contributors to society. The return on investments in high-quality birth-five programming is an astounding 13% for every dollar invested, according to Dr. James Heckman, Nobel Laurite Economist via heckmanequation.org <http://heckmanequation.org> . When rebuilding the economy, a 13% ROI is a compelling incentive to invest in our children, certainly a better investment than the current stock market.

As a community, we have a collective responsibility for the well-being of our infants, toddlers, children, and youth. According to the well-known African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” These villages of support seemed to form more naturally a few generations ago; today they need to be intentionally created. We need to be intentional about our path forward and invest in building a strong foundation for our community. Early Childhood Education teachers and caregivers deserve fair compensation and access to adequate resources to sustain the health and well-being of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, our children.

As I pull into my parking space at work, I take a moment to reflect. The bright orange barricade that remains outside of the County Courthouse sticks out in my mind. The courthouse is still closed. Heading in to work each day of the pandemic, I feel like I am on the front lines of the unknown. We all are facing the unknown every day. Yet I ruminate on the children wearing masks walking up the stairs to their caregivers at the childcare center with a question. Why is it ok to keep the courthouse closed but expect young children to face the day on the front lines for the sake of the economy?

Christin D. Smith