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The national conversation is focused on a child care crisis and how school might open in the fall. I don’t think our society has fully appreciated the essential function of child care programs and public schools until this pandemic. However, our leaders are making the mistake of approaching them as if they are different. Not only are schools and child care programs inextricably linked in our communities; they are fundamentally the same thing. They are places dedicated to health, safety and quality of learning for children. And the professional educators working in both schools and child care programs should be respected and compensated in accordance with their skills and experience.
I find it deeply troubling that we separate them in our minds, policies and financing. If anyone recognizes the identical functions of child care and school, it’s working parents. When my son was 2, my husband and I relied on his child care program to care for him while we were working and to educate him with high-quality early learning. Now that my son is 7, we look to his elementary school to care for him while we are working and to educate him with high-quality early learning.
As a teacher, I have worked in child care centers and elementary schools. I did the same job in both places. I taught and took care of children.
When I hear some teachers react with frustration and defensiveness at their schools being equated with child care, I know I am listening to the consequences of our history of undervaluing and demeaning the “caring” professions. There is nothing wrong with an educator also being a caregiver. Those roles are both part of teaching.
With this mindset of devaluing child care, it is no wonder that underfunding and ineffective policies persist in our country and state. The treatment of child care and schools as different entities with different functions has been on display this spring and summer.
In most states there have been completely different sets of conditions and expectations for child care centers and public schools. One should stay open. The other should close. One, being funded by parent fees, had to lay off teachers and lost the revenue needed to cover costs. The other, being publicly funded, could keep teachers on payroll.
These different sets of policies don’t make sense. If it is not safe for children to be in group settings, then both schools and child care programs should close. If it is safe for children to be in group settings, then both child care and school can open.
I am not a public health expert and I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that our COVID-19 response has been treating educators from child care differently from those working in public schools, and that is wrong.
In Maine, we could work cross-sector, with creativity and innovation in every community. Schools could be working with child care center directors to learn about their key challenges and successes in caring for and educating children this summer. Public schools could look beyond their district buildings to partner with empty community spaces and offices that could help spread students out. Flexible business policies and paid leave could help solve some of the problems working families are facing. We must develop targeted, coordinated solutions that look at the needs of children, teachers, parents and employers in all the messiness and complexity that exists in this COVID-19 crisis.
When it comes to child care and school, let’s make sure these essential places survive and can safely support children and families. We need our federal and state officials to focus on dedicated, substantial funding for each, with aligned policies that reflect the fact that child care is school and school is child care.
Tara Williams is the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. She has taught in public schools and early care and education programs.