PROJECT PAYCHECK: Child care centers in the Berkshires are fighting to hold it together, one positive COVID-19 test and one teacher resignation after another. By all accounts, the pandemic has steamrolled a stressed early-education system in Massachusetts. “It’s been difficult not being able to work because I can’t find child care for my daughter," said one Berkshire County mother. She's not alone.
“I’ve been on the phone with directors who are just ready to cry.”
That’s what Anne Nemetz-Carlson, president and CEO of Child Care of the Berkshires, told The Eagle in summing up the steep challenges facing those who watch over our littlest residents. Child care providers, particularly those in Berkshire County, are facing a long-building crisis that has been exploded by COVID.
Young families bear it as well. If it was hard to find child care in the Berkshires before the pandemic, it’s nearly impossible now. Long waiting lists are the norm. Nearly a fifth of smaller, family-run programs have shuttered and larger centers, while more likely to survive, struggle mightily with staffing levels due to hiring issues and COVID-related absences. That means many child care centers can’t accommodate their full capacity, which in turn means fewer slots for the working families that desperately need them.
We share the view of advocates who say the extent of this care crisis should compel an earnest new look at how to seriously upgrade the child care and early education picture in Massachusetts.
The Build Back Better federal legislation, mired in D.C. sclerosis, would have helped a bit by bringing more than $3 billion in early childhood care funding to the commonwealth.
At the state level, the so-called Common Start bill (H.605, S.362) would solidify funding for these care programs by basing the formula on capacity instead of attendance. That’s more like how public education funding is allotted, a parity that early childhood education advocates say is long overdue. If implemented, it would make child care free for families below the Bay State median income. The legislation is backed by several members of the Berkshire delegation, including state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who underscored that this issue should be considered part of public education — and treated with similar import at the policy level.
“We don’t ask families to pay for fifth grade. But we ask them to sometimes pay what they would pay for college for child care,” Rep. Farley-Bouvier told The Eagle.
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The labor side of the issue requires attention as well. Finding workers is hard across the board right now. We must acknowledge that the vital work performed by those in child care positions is often as tough as it is crucial, and we should compensate them as such even when the market doesn’t solve for it on its own. That requires boosting funding toward improving salaries and also building in career advancement opportunities to help with retention. As with the region’s nursing home crisis, we must face this matter with clear eyes. When given the choice between a taxing job like caregiving and a lower-pressure job like serving coffee at a drive-thru window for the same compensation, many will go with the latter option. We must see the investment in caregivers, including those looking after kids, as one that is worth more to our society than a fast-food job.
In fact, the child care crisis is like the nursing home crisis in many ways. It’s a systemic problem that isn’t new, worsened with COVID and isn’t going anywhere. It’s costly to properly address, but even more costly to ignore. That’s true in both moral and economic development terms. Working families need accessible care for their young children at a critical developmental juncture, and this lifegiving work deserves the level of public investment that acknowledges its value. If we don’t recognize that, then it will only make it harder for underserved regions like Berkshire County to keep and attract young families.
COVID has forced us to rethink many of our priorities. This one in particular deserves a refocus sooner than later. Why do we as a nation have an endlessly increasing budget for bombs and warplanes but a penny-pinching attitude toward ensuring decent care for our young and elderly constituents? Where are our priorities as a society when caregiver pay is barely competitive with an entry-level job at Dunkin? Seeking solutions to these crises might be far from simple or cheap, but we can’t afford to neglect them.