Access to quality childcare is critical for Arizona’s children and their families. Early childhood educators in these settings build young brains by supporting children’s learning and development. Our goal is to ensure that 45 percent of our 3- and 4-year-olds can access quality early learning settings. Through the Arizona Education Progress Meter, we know this figure stands at only 22 percent. If Arizona wants to grow, we must provide a strong start for the children and families of our state. In Arizona today, there are nearly 800,000 children under the age of 8. Among those children, 61 percent live in a home where both parents are working. Families rely on childcare.

Care for young children is not just an education issue, it’s an economic one. As the state reopens, many small businesses are at-risk. Despite the important work they do, childcare centers are no exception. Families across our state depend on childcare businesses so they can work or go to school and contribute to our community and the economy. But how can businesses reopen when nearly 50 percent of Arizona’s licensed early childhood providers are currently closed indefinitely?

For a field that already lacked necessary public investments, the COVID-19 pandemic could prove devastating. Among the 2,826 licensed center-based and family childcare providers in Arizona, 171,986 spaces were available for children in January. By April, only 76,285 spaces were available, a decrease by more than half. So, in just a few short months, tens of thousands of children lost access to preschool.

Thankfully, some childcare providers were able to stay open to serve families of first responders, medical personnel, and essential staff. On March 24, 2020, Governor Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced a plan to allow providers to apply for Arizona Enrichment Center status. This plan offered state-funded scholarships for centers to provide care for the children of essential hospital, police and fire staff that could not work from home. Eligibility eventually expanded to include more of these essential workers, including teachers and those employed at grocery stores and food banks.

At the national level, Congress passed the CARES Act, which included $30.75 billion for education. To alleviate the burden of the pandemic on small businesses, Congress authorized Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in the CARES Act. While there were millions of dollars available, few childcare providers received the loans. Funds ran out quickly, while some providers did not have the business skills or bank relationships to access the PPP.

Even before COVID-19, Arizonans had unequal access to childcare. In rural areas of the state, vast childcare deserts left families with very few options. Even urban areas lacked the capacity to serve as many families as needed. That meant long wait lists, and parents who had to forego going to work or school because of the lack of quality care settings for their children.

Nevertheless, early childhood educators have tried to adapt during COVID-19. Many have thoughtfully leveraged existing resources and are working hard to meet the needs of families. Our youngest students learn in the context of relationships, building a positive, trusting bond with their teachers who provide foundational learning. There is no online substitution for these in-person experiences. Online learning at this age is simply not appropriate for young children. Teachers and children had already formed relationships before centers were forced to close, so many teachers were able to provide online resources for activities, family check-ins, and more during the time when going to schools was not an option.

Moreover, pay among childcare workers is so low that one out of every two early childhood educators qualify to receive public benefits. The average salary for early educators is $23,379, about half of what elementary school teachers earn. This situation will not improve in the near future, as more than half of childcare businesses have reported laying off or furloughing employees either recently or in the next month.

Even if centers reopen soon, will early childhood teachers be waiting in their classrooms? We’re not sure. Some may feel anxious about their health and safety. Some may have found employment elsewhere. Many providers are faced with tough choices. “Do I stay open to care for children while putting my staff at risk? With many children staying home, will we have enough revenue to stay open? Will I have to close my doors forever, and if so, what does that mean for children in my community?”

If we want to make progress, our state and federal legislators need to invest in early childhood education. We have shared our vision for how that money would be best spent: through immediate investments in childcare scholarships, health and safety supplies for care providers, and worthy wages for early childhood educators. At least $51 billion from the U.S. Congress will help childcare centers be ready to open when the time comes so teachers can build the brains of young learners and families can get back to work. This investment in quality childcare will not only increase the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits for children. It will power significant economic benefits for Arizona and a better future for Arizona’s children, families, early childhood educators, and communities.

childcare investments critical COVID-19 Dr. Eric Bucher works to advance equity in early childhood as the executive director of the Arizona Association for the Education of Young Children (AzAEYC). AzAEYC elevates the early childhood profession and advances quality early education for all young children in our state.