Two very different populations. One, parents who need confidence — before they resume on-site work — that young children left with early education and childcare providers are protected from the COVID-19 virus. The other, those coping with homelessness, substance abuse and an inability to care for themselves, need access to services that bring them a degree of stability and self-sufficiency. To a large extent both populations have been frozen out of needed services since mid-March. That needs to change for a successful economic recovery.
For both populations the process of “socialization” through collective support and learning is critical. It’s a standard in early education. And it’s no less important in helping people address the traumatic effects of homelessness.
That’s where organizations like Lifebridge North Shore and its partners, including Grace Center and Seeds of Hope, are working hard to return operations to a degree of normalcy. Grace Center, along with Action Inc., the Gloucester YMCA and the city of Gloucester, established a shelter-in-place operation at the Gloucester Y for more than two dozen homeless men and women. This meant around-the-clock staffing-in-place, a daunting undertaking under the best of circumstances.
Unfortunately, Grace Center and similar organizations have been unable to provide many core functions built around a welcoming environment that include meals and health care, education and counseling, help with job searches and advocacy on behalf of those served. Stephen Voysey, Grace Center director, points to the importance of bringing people together again, noting that “one of our strengths is connecting people with relationships and services that give them hope, direction and ongoing support. Sadly, this has been missing in recent months.”
Early education and childcare are increasingly recognized as a critical field that supports the economy. Providers, government officials and legislators have been working for weeks to agree on workable guidelines for reopening centers. Early guidelines were “onerous,” and implementation will be costly. But progress is being made as opening dates approach.
Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care relaxed several requirements. It no longer requires an extra teacher in every classroom, but precludes any other staff from entering to give a teacher a break. It no longer mandates, but encourages, every child older than 2 to wear a mask. Staff will still wear masks. Social distancing is still required, and classroom capacity is limited to 50%. At a time in a child’s life when social skills development is especially important, social distancing requirements, while essential for health, conflict directly with standards of performance and best practices.
Providers of subsidized programs such those of Pathways serving the North Shore have been in a better position financially than private, licensed providers. Government low-income subsidies have continued even as sites shut down. As a result, Pathways’ administrators, educators and social workers have continued to reach out to families and children through technology to stay connected and deliver services throughout the period. Pathways CEO Sue Todd said “I have never been prouder of our staff for the way they have responded with total commitment to our children and families. Many challenges are ahead including establishing confidence that staff and children will be returning to a safe and supportive environment.”
Subsidized programs reach about 20% of the population in need. Private, licensed suppliers who depend on parents with capacity to pay weekly or monthly rates provide the rest. These providers have seen incomes dry up and are looking at a future that is best uncertain under new guidelines and lost incomes.
Getting through COVID-19 successfully won’t address broader issues affecting early education and childcare. It’s not a new problem. Announcing updated guidelines on June 9, EEC acknowledges that “…before COVID-19 … the childcare market was broken, the structure of costs and public subsidies meant that too many children could not gain access to high-quality early childhood settings ….”
The Massachusetts House is paying attention. An oversight committee led by Gloucester Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who chairs the Economic Development Committee, and Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley, chair of the Education Committee, is looking at how health protocols will impact childcare, financing models for childcare and the impact of the pandemic on communities of color.
Early education and childcare issues, and challenges facing the homeless and others in need, will not disappear with COVID-19. The ability of service providers to emerge from COVID-19 successfully will have a big impact on the quality of life in communities for years to come.
As the general population adjusts to the new normal of COVID-19 — and what will follow — it is important to a community’s well-being that organizations such as Pathways, Lifebridge and Grace Center have ongoing and robust support from donors, community and business leaders and people willing to devote time and energy to their success.
Carl Gustin is a retired executive and Gloucester resident who writes occasionally on local, regional and national issues.