Start Early. Start well.

December 21, 2020

A Silver Lining in 2020: Nebraskans Team Up to Help Families, Early Childhood Educators

preschool girl washing her handsThousands of Nebraska teachers and child care providers put themselves at risk to help young children and families during the pandemic.

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

Dave White, a second grade teacher at Grand Island’s Shoemaker Elementary, has been doing temperature checks, reminding students about mask wearing, and perfecting his air high five as his young pupils leave the classroom each day, even though he wants to hug them like it’s 2019.

Alicia Melo, the owner of Little Explorers Daycare in Geneva, has been caring for children of essential workers, sanitizing religiously, and praying her staff and business make it safely into 2021.

Melo, White, and thousands of Nebraska teachers and child care providers have put themselves at risk during a pandemic to help young children and families make it through this brutal year. They and every early childhood educator have shown themselves to be oh-so-essential as 2020 comes, mercifully, to a close.

“COVID shined a spotlight on the vital contribution they make every single day,” says Betty Medinger, senior vice president at the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. “These are the first responders who stepped up so the first responders could go out and do their jobs.”

2020 was a year filled with storm clouds. But, for a second, it’s worth peering through them to find slivers of light like Melo, White, and a Nebraska early childhood community that banded together to support these early education and care first responders—and our state’s families—during a crisis.

A group led by Nebraska Children and Families launched the Child Care Referral Network at, aided by the Buffett Institute, which helped set up the infrastructure to connect with child care providers. Nebraska parents can now quickly and easily search for quality local child care near home, easing a process that’s especially confusing and stressful during a pandemic.

Child care provider playing with toddlerThe Buffett Institute conducted two surveys
of Nebraska child care providers in 2020.

The Buffett Institute issued guidelines on how to reopen child care as safely as possible, offering advice to child care providers at a time when precious little guidance was available.

Two surveys of child care providers showed policymakers and the public that COVID-19 had pushed Nebraska child care to the brink, with more than half of providers surveyed saying they would “probably” or “definitely” need financial help if the pandemic continues or worsens.

And a group of early childhood organizations found and distributed available money, including private dollars and federal funds, to child care providers. When no thermometers were available, they found and delivered thousands, free of charge, to Nebraska child care programs. When no hand sanitizer could be found, they coordinated the delivery of that, too.

Going through the pandemic “is like walking into a dark, frightening room and you don’t know how you are going to walk through that room and exit safely,” says Sam Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute. “We’re doing what we can to help.”

That help extended to schools, early elementary teachers, and their students.

Many Buffett Institute program development employees and their metro-area school counterparts spent the early weeks of COVID-19 helping deliver food and other basic needs to at-risk students.

This summer and fall, the Institute’s professional learning unit partnered with Omaha-area teachers and national expert Chip Donohue to deliver a series of presentations on how to best do remote teaching and learning.

“This was really our effort, a collective effort, at assisting children and families and meeting our mission of improving the learning and development of all children, especially those at highest risk,” Meisels says.

Even as the pandemic unfolded, Nebraska early childhood experts and advocates continued to push the state toward a better future when every child can get the quality care and early education they deserve.

First Five Nebraska and economists at the University of NebraskaLincoln released a study showing that Nebraska is costing itself a staggering $745 million per year as child care shortages cause workers to leave the workforce, go part-time, or move.

The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission delivered a report highlighting the need for better pay and better training for early childhood educators. It also calculated—for the first time ever—how much it would cost to close the early childhood funding gap in Nebraska.

Sen. John Stinner, who served on that commission, has repeatedly advocated closing that funding gap. The Gering Republican, who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, also sponsored a statewide survey to understand COVID-19’s impact on the child care needs of working families and businesses.

All of this work ties back to a desire to support Alicia Melo and Dave White and every other early childhood educator doing what he or she can to make this a better place to a be a baby or a young child, even during a pandemic. Even as we wait for life to return to normal, fingers crossed, in 2021.

“I am getting really good at the air high five,” Dave White said this fall while discussing the new routine when his second graders depart each day. “But I don’t ever want to get used to that.”


Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at


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