Start Early. Start well.

October 31, 2023

National Workforce Registry Alliance Conference Comes to Omaha

Early childhood provider panel at National Workforce Registry Alliance conference in OmahaA panel discussion  at the NWRA conference included, from left, moderator Cama Charlet Cole, of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute; Mariana Munoz de Schell, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation; Susan Johnson, Falls City Sixpence; and child care providers Jeannie Farewell, Chambers; Alexis Marquez, Grand Island; and Tasha McNeil, Omaha.

By Erin Duffy and Duane Retzlaff 

Walter Gilliam discovered the power and promise of workforce registries in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Researchers, public health officials, and policymakers were looking for more data on an oft-overlooked group: child care providers. Young children are notoriously germ-prone, and questions swirled about whether child care programs were hotbeds of COVID-19 transmission. Were kids safe there? What about their teachers?  

Gilliam, then the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, reached out to the National Workforce Registry Alliance.  

The alliance supports establishing and fine-tuning statewide registries of early educators and held its annual conference in Omaha Oct. 16–20. Gilliam and several Buffett Institute staff members led and moderated presentations, and the Alliance’s board of directors held its annual meeting at the Buffett Institute office. 

Registries are essentially information systems: early educators can upload information about themselves, such as their education credentials or employment history, to a state tracking system. In turn, they can receive important information on topics like professional development opportunities or available grants.  

The first early childhood workforce registry was established in Wisconsin in 1991. Today, there are 45 state registries containing information for 642,000 people.  

These databases can also provide researchers with a large pool of potential participants for studies or surveys.  

With the help of the national alliance, Gilliam was able to tap into a large sample size of thousands of early educators, asking them questions about their exposure to COVID-19, if they tested positive, if they used personal protective equipment (PPE), if they took precautions outside of work.  

Cathey Huddleston-Casas, Susan Sarver, and Walter GilliamCathey Huddleston-Casas, Susan Sarver, and Walter Gilliam

This quick, case-controlled study led to an important conclusion: child care programs didn’t present a significantly heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission in the first months of the pandemic. It was the first large-scale study of its kind, attracting widespread attention from national media and state and federal policymakers. Future surveys asked providers questions about vaccination rates, depression and well-being, and children’s mental health.  

“All the data I just told you about? It was only possible because of registries,” said Gilliam, now the executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Working with registries, he told conference attendees, “totally changed what we were able to do.”  

In addition to Gilliam, breakout session speakers included the Buffett Institute’s Susan Sarver and Cathey Huddleston-Casas, the director and associate director of workforce planning and development, and Cama Charlet Cole, the associate director of professional learning.  

Sarver and Huddleston-Casas shared their work at the Institute, which revolves around elevating the early childhood workforce and tracking early childhood funding.  

“They’re important to quality,” Sarver said about early educators. “They’re important for the community. And they’re important for the goals of the state.”  

Cole moderated a panel discussion designed to give voice to the experiences of Nebraska early childhood educators. 

“We are starting to be heard, because there is a crisis in early childhood education,” said Tasha McNeil, who owns Brilliant Brains Learning Center in Omaha. “I’m sad it took a crisis for it to happen, but we are being heard.” 

McNeil said she wishes people could visit child care providers. 

“Shadow us for a day, really see what’s going on,” she said. “If people came and just sat there, observe what it is we do, the way children are now, some of the behaviors...” 

Alexis Marquez, director of Lexie’s Little Sunshines In-Home Childcare in Grand Island, quickly agreed.  

“Step in and see our world,” she said. 

The panelists said the state workforce database is helpful but could be improved. Susan Johnson, director of Sixpence at Falls City Public Schools, called for anything that could help child care homes find substitute caregivers. McNeil said child care providers should be involved in making any changes. 

“Get us involved. We can tell you what is happening, and what works,” she said. 


Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.     
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