By Pat Sullivan
In March when we entered our first shelter-in-place and San Francisco was transformed overnight from a vibrant metropolis to a ghost town, I was afraid. I wanted to wrap myself in a warm blanket, hunker in, unplug my phone, order takeout and pretend I was on a much-needed vacation.
I had been recovering from a horrible flu for months. Still tired all the time, I taught three college courses, worked all day with preschoolers, and found time to advocate for early childhood education (ECE) and family childcare while serving on dissertation committees and drafting a book chapter about colorism. When I finally had the courage to check my email, I had hundreds of messages from frightened people just like me—community partners all trying to steady the ship and navigate a course through uncharted waters.
There were public health guidelines that changed so rapidly it was hard to keep up. Initially published only in English, these guidelines were eventually translated by community agencies and network leaders to a workforce unsure of how to stay safe and socially distanced while changing diapers.
With no guarantee of funding, educators maintained their connections to children through virtual circle time and sing-along sessions so that parents who had transformed a portion of their living spaces into office-classrooms could work from home. A few of us kept our doors open for the children of essential workers, at great risk to our own safety and the safety of our families.
Childcare programs that served subsidized children were initially fully funded, but those who served a majority or all private pay families recognized that as the month came to an end, so would their income. Hard decisions were made whether to keep already collected parent fees despite closure, or lay-off teachers. With the limited State and Federal programs, childcare educators — mostly small operators without HR support, found it near impossible to navigate unemployment claims, PPP loans and small business emergency grants, especially those for whom English was not their first language.
Near the end of April, just as the funding for subsidized children in all but state preschool programs ended, the shelter-in-place was extended to June. The consistently undervalued ECE workforce, so poorly compensated that most are a paycheck away from financial insecurity, was rocked. Small centers and family child care programs struggling to pay sky-high rents and meet new safety costs gave up and went out of business. Some re-opened despite safety concerns for at risk staff or others living in their family childcare home. By the end of May, over 200 childcare centers and family childcare homes had closed, many for good.
ECE leaders and educators tried to focus on innovative ways to help children transition to a world where masks and solitary play became the new normal. It wasn’t easy. Although children seemed less likely to contract the virus, they were not immune to its effects on the adults around them. Children who once drew pictures of monsters in the closet now drew pictures of COVID spheres complete with tiny red spikes. This was their new boogeyman.
And then we watched George Floyd get murdered on national television. Black communities already hardest hit by COVID were reminded that they were already in a racism pandemic and we wondered if anti-maskers were hoping our over-representation in COVID fatalities would sway the November election.
ECE advocates and leaders helped with food distributions, passed out hundreds of literacy bags to families, delivered PPE to educators, volunteered hundreds of hours of support for providers struggling to stay in business. We attended stakeholder meetings, adding our voice and perspective to planning system changes. Through the dedicated efforts of so many we’re holding on, but the cliff is narrow, our fingers are tired, and winter is here.
Thanks to Mayor Breed, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and President Norman Yee, The Human Right’s Commission, The Office of Early Care and Education, the Children’s Council, Wu Yee Children’s Services, First 5, CPAC, The Department of Public Health, Low Income Investment Fund, Early Childhood Educators of San Francisco and the Family Child Care Association we have co-created supports for young children, their families and the early childhood educators that serve them, but there are still significant challenges ahead.
The SF Economic Recovery Task Force identified child care as essential for families to get back on their feet. Without the Early Education Recovery Program, introduced by President Yee and Mayor Breed, providing grants and interest-free loans to early care and education providers to help cover costs associated with the pandemic, it will take years for San Francisco’s early child care system to rebuild lost programs and stabilize. Child care programs are more than a business, they are a public good in need of public investment.
Pat Sullivan is a family child care operator, president of the Family Child Care Association and co-chair of the Early Childhood Educators of San Francisco.