As the coronavirus outbreak started to take widespread effect in Arizona, the importance of child care providers as crucial community assets became clear. For those workers who have no choice but to continue working outside their home, knowing that their children are cared for by skilled, trusted child care workers means one less worry on their shoulders.

Especially in uncertain times, early childhood educators provide families the support they need, so it has been devastating to see child care center owners and managers face the difficult decision of whether to stay open or close. More than half of the nearly 1,000 child care providers who participate in First Things First’s Quality First program have closed since mid-March. Providers continue to struggle to stay open.

“Our first thought initially was ‘What are we going to do for the parents that definitely needed child care?’” said Donna Stevens, manager of Kids World Learning Center in Chandler. “Child care is essential for those having to continue working.”

But with the desire to be there for families of essential workers, also came the balance of the health and safety of the children, families and the center’s own employees.

“It was very important to stay open and stay open safely,” Stevens said.

Their center decided to stay open and so far, it’s been the right one, Stevens said. Although they’ve lost about 50% of the children they were caring for before the coronavirus outbreak, it’s the 50% that are still there that make it worth it.

“Everybody has been on board — the staff, parents and children — with new policies, from hand washing to staying at the door,” Stevens said. “It’s important that families be able to continue to work, including our employees who need their jobs. If you don’t have child care, people can’t work and it will send us into a recession.”

A focus on child care continues across Arizona, including at the state level, as policymakers look for ways to help essential workers who cannot work from home, including health care workers and first responders.

More and more people are realizing that early childhood is a critical component to the infrastructure of the workforce, said FTF’s Chief Program Officer Amy Corriveau.

“Early childhood child care is a cornerstone,” she said. “Can you imagine if children and families didn’t have child care options?”

Corriveau and others at FTF have been working with state partners to address the crisis in the early childhood system to prevent a breakdown in services, which happened during the 2008 recession.

“During the last recession, many closed their doors and were never able to reopen,” she said. “If programs have to close down, how will they come back? Is staff getting laid off? Someday this will pass and we want those child care options to be there for families when they return to work. We can’t let the infrastructure of the early childhood child care system collapse, because it will take a long time to recover.”

A difference this time compared to 2008 is that families are now home with their children.

“Parents who lost their job are having to home school their kids,” Corriveau said. “Even the ones still working are working from home. They see the value of quality child care. I think people who may not have given a thought before of early childhood might be thinking a bit differently now.”

It’s a step that Ginger Sandweg, FTF’s senior director for early learning, hopes will get more people to value the work of early childhood professionals.

“I hope this sends the message that this profession is being valued,” Sandweg said. “I would love to see this go where providers can pay a living wage to their professionals and families are able to say it is worth it for me to pay for quality care for my children.”

Loretta Desaulniers recently found out that her center, Kinder Prep Academy in Safford is the only one open in Graham and Greenlee counties. She said she’s lost about half her families who have withdrawn enrollment for a variety of reasons, including lost jobs and children with additional health concerns.

“I try to be understanding. It’s a hard decision for everyone,” she said. “I wake up every morning looking at my phone, hoping we make it through this.”

But she also has families who have stayed enrolled, even one business owner who, although he had to close his business, continues to take his son to preschool.

“He said, ‘My son needs to be here. He needs the consistency and normality of it,’” Desaulniers said. “It made us feel good. Other parents have also thanked us. They say, ‘We want you to survive this. We want you to be there when my 2-year-old is ready for preschool.’ ”

As the child care community continues to work through this crisis, all Arizonans should consider how critical it will be that a healthy, stable child care system is ready when an entire workforce heads back to work.

Ofelia Gonzalez is a public information officer at First Things First. You can reach her at ogonzalez@firstthingsfirst.org.​