Early learning centers already serve as hubs for meeting the food, housing, material, and health and wellness needs of children and families in their surrounding communities. For many vulnerable families, COVID-19 has caused significant financial insecurity, threatened housing security, and significantly increased needs for assistance with respect to health care services and to food and other material goods. Early learning centers are well suited to anchor initiatives to meet the needs of children and families; they should be equipped with the funding and manpower to do so. Bolstering the coordination and direct service capacity of early learning centers not only will alleviate immediate community need, it will also strengthen the childcare and early education system once the crisis has passed.
State and federal governments should develop a program to recognize and formalize the role of many early learning providers in meeting essential needs of children and families. As they do with health care providers and K-12 institutions, government agencies should contract with early learning providers to meet the full scope needs of children and families.
The time to act, however, is now. With closure of child care programs due to COVID-19, the early education and child care sector has been pushed to the brink of collapse. Revenue streams, whether in the form of government subsidies or in private fees paid by parents, have been cut off, forcing early learning providers to lay off their staff en masse and reckon with whether they can continue to pay rent and utility bills. Many providers are in danger of financial insolvencies and of going out of business altogether.
Government investment in early learning providers as hubs for procurement and distribution of goods and services that meet basic community needs could help keep providers in business, even while early learning programs are dormant. It stands as an efficient, impactful opportunity to best meet the needs of children and families while also keeping early educators (who, in the immediate, could serve as the procurers and distributors of food and material goods) employed while child care programs are closed.
Technology offers an opportunity to act quickly to equip early learning centers to act as procurement and distribution hubs for meeting the materials needs of children and families. Neighborhood Villages and East Boston Social Centers, as well as additional community based partners including East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, have been coordinating to launch an information sharing system that, as appropriate and within the bounds of confidentiality protections and preferences, could track referral information for individual families being supported by multiple organizations. Tech platforms that could accommodate this approach to tracking both referrals and outcomes include Unite Us and Activate Care. Receipt of philanthropic funds would support capacity to create a basic platform to facilitate intake of family needs, documenting procurement and distribution of material goods, and confirmation that families received those goods. Platforms would include both phone/tablet apps, as well as computer programs.
Investment in early learning providers’ capacity to meet the full-scope needs of children and families should continue once early learning programs re-open. Reimbursement for positions focused on community outreach are an economically efficient and highly impactful way to reach families as programs reopen. Early learning providers see families every day; as a result, they are uniquely positioned to address needs quickly and prevent vulnerabilities transitioning into crises, particularly with respect to housing security and eviction prevention. Additionally, given projections for a long period of economic recession, once the crisis has passed, there will continue to be significant need for expanded social service capacity.