Early childhood educators, who provide a critical foundation for child development and the economy, do a difficult job for little pay. The pandemic has made their job even harder.
By Erin Duffy
Early childhood educators are sometimes called “the workforce behind the workforce.”
Parents can’t work if they don’t have loving, trusted care for their children. Businesses can’t run at full speed if their workers don’t have reliable child care. Communities can’t thrive when young families leave because there are no child care providers or preschools nearby.
Early childhood professionals provide a critical foundation for child development and the economy. The health care providers, grocery store workers, and teachers that we relied upon during the pandemic? Child care providers allowed them to keep working their essential jobs, secure in the knowledge that their kids were being cared for, taught, and nurtured.
The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and its statewide partners are working to elevate Nebraska’s early childhood workforce into a profession that is valued.
That’s because the workforce behind the workforce needs our help. Too often, child care providers are underpaid and underappreciated, dismissed as babysitters instead of respected as teachers and caregivers who guide children through a seismic period of change as they learn to walk, talk, and play.
The pandemic made the job even harder, with more child care providers closing their doors due to quarantines, worker shortages, or decreased enrollment. A Buffett Institute report documented that as of July 2021, 13% of child care programs in Nebraska that existed pre-pandemic closed. There were 1,500 fewer early childhood workers.
Many of those who remain are struggling, too, according to the stark findings of the Institute’s latest survey gauging the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Nebraska’s child care providers.
More than 750 providers responded in February. Over half of them have contracted COVID-19 at least once, compared to one-quarter of the state’s residents. Some are still experiencing the lingering symptoms that have become the hallmark of long COVID. Two-thirds have seen their income drop over the last year, and more than 4 in 5 have had trouble hiring staff—some job openings haven’t attracted a single applicant.
That’s because early educators frequently scrape by on low wages. They may not get health benefits or paid sick days. In Nebraska, early childhood workers make an average wage of just $12.31 an hour. Child care businesses, many small and woman-owned, run on thin margins and are finding it hard to compete with retailers, fast food chains, and other industries offering higher pay and sign-on bonuses.
The Buffett Institute believes that the professionals who teach our children possess gifts and skills that should be recognized and fairly compensated. In the two years since the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission released a comprehensive report aimed at elevating the early childhood workforce, the Buffett Institute has worked toward that goal by:
• Conducting several COVID-19 impact surveys. Watch for more survey results this spring.
• Launching the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Leadership Cadre. The cadre was designed to give early educators a seat at the table in conversations about early childhood issues and policy. Twenty-six educators, hailing from Omaha, Battle Creek, Chadron, and small towns and cities in between, will meet over the next three years to develop their leadership skills and initiate community projects.
• Using a listening tour of college campuses and survey of early childhood faculty to inform ongoing efforts to create aligned, accessible higher education and training pathways so Nebraska has a strong pipeline of early childhood educators who reflect the diversity of Nebraska families.
• Offering professional development webinars so educators can learn more about relevant and timely topics like teacher well-being and using technology creatively and appropriately with young learners.
Ambitious work lies ahead. As part of an annual $8.9 million federal Preschool Development Continuation Grant that Nebraska received, a statewide early childhood public outreach campaign will begin this spring. Its goal is to raise awareness of the fact that everyone—including families, schools, businesses, and elected officials—has an interest in supporting children’s learning and development.
And our partners at Nebraska Children and Families Foundation continue to expand their Communities for Kids initiative, which is working directly with places like Gothenburg, Lexington, and Boone County to provide parents with expanded and improved local child care options.
We’ll continue to work closely with and advocate for Nebraska’s early childhood workforce. Our educators—the workforce behind the workforce—deserve it, and so do the children learning and growing under their care.
Erin Duffy works at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org