Child Care in Wisconsin – Part IV

As school districts prepare for the 2020-21 school year, some are planning in-person classes, some are planning virtual classes, and some are planning a hybrid of in-person and online. Regardless of the school plans, it is clear that the need for additional child care services for school-age children will be needed, yet the early child care and education sector is already at capacity, and providers are being asked to do more. A recent article by Ruth Schmidt, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association says K-12 and child care programs need to work together to meet the education needs of Wisconsin’s children. She highlights some of the collaborative efforts undertaken in some communities to do that, including:

  • 4K Models
  • Fund 80
  • Community Partnerships
  • Child Care Innovations
  • Out of School Time Care
  • School/Child Care Collaborative Virtual Learning

Governor says “Everyone needs affordable child care”

In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Governor Evers said the CARES Act funding provided to Wisconsin to address needs was a “good first step” but said Wisconsin child care providers need more help. Evers said early childhood education and child care services are “critically important” especially with some K-12 schools returning this fall virtually. Evers said the additional child age students at home will put additional pressures on an already stressed system. He said the Department of Children and Families is working to identify and reallocate funding which could be used to help child care providers in Wisconsin but emphasized the need for the federal government to address the need and to do so quickly.

Minimizing contact

One heavily emphasized point from all the health officials during Covid-19 has been to limit the number of people who come in contact with one another. Officials have encouraged people to keep the groups small and try not to cross groups to impede the spread of the virus. As school districts look ahead to the 2020-21 school year, and child care programs continue to educate early learners, that focus of keeping groups small, isolated, and minimizing crossover has been an important driving force. The education series run in June highlighted schools looking to keep classes in the same room for most activities, not sharing communal areas, and keeping crossover from staff to a minimum as much as possible.  Child care centers are doing the same thing as highlighted last week in the interview with Abbi Kruse at The Playing Field in Madison. Kruse highlighted the increased costs to keep students in separate groups, which goes against their main mission to address diversity among students. Additionally, the change in class organization upends their model of keeping students with one teacher from entry to kindergarten, instead they are focusing on keeping siblings together and minimizing crossover among students. But what happens when school starts in-person classes again and the groups they are with at school are not the same groups the students are with at child care, which can be different groups from social activities and communities/neighborhoods?

Madison Works to Help Parents

In many communities the city recreation is part of the city parks department. In Madison, the recreation is under the Madison Metropolitan School District and is called the Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR). The MSCR offers adult and child programming for the Madison community. The MSCR has been working with the City of Madison Child Care Unit, led by Coral Manning, and other groups, to address the needs of the community for early childhood education as well as support the virtual learning and child care services of school age children since the pandemic began.

Prior to Covid-19, MSCR provided care for elementary students in out-of-school time (after school and summer camps). Manning said her office, the Madison School District, MSCR and the state worked together from the beginning of the pandemic to bring together all the partners to meet the needs of families. When Covid-19 first started, most of the child care programs shut down, but early childhood education and child care was still needed for essential workers during the shutdown. That is when MSCR, the YMCA and other child care providers expanded their services and worked with providers to provide sites for child care programs. As soon as the sites were up and running, Manning and the other partners began looking ahead to the fall and working through what the needs would be and how they could be met through numerous scenarios: full-time in-person school, completely virtual learning, or a hybrid of the two. When Madison schools announced they would be starting virtually for the first quarter of the school year MSCR, Manning and the other partners worked to expand their offerings. MSCR will host 16 Care sites which will provide care for about 1,000 elementary school students during school hours for the first quarter of the school year. As the school district makes decisions on a quarterly basis, they will work with MSCR and the City to continue to address the needs for early childhood education and school age support.  

The MSCR sites have been a collaborative effort to provide early education and child care services to families in Madison with need. The MSCR in conjunction with City of Madison Child Care Unit and other partners have worked together to develop a temporary system during Covid-19 to give private providers physical locations and supplies to keep early childcare services open. The school district has made the elementary schools available to private providers, provided them with transportation, meals, nursing staff, a physical space, and cleaning while the providers are bringing the staff and the curriculum to provide care and support to the students. With Madison starting virtually until October (the first quarter of the school year) the program expanded from what was offered during the summer to what can be offered during the first quarter. Decisions on school being virtual or in-person will likely be decided on a quarterly basis, so the continuation of the MSCR sites will be working on a quarterly basis as well.  When the Madison School District returns to a hybrid approach which blends virtual and in-person learning, if the need for care remains, the sites will need to relocate.

One concern for the program is the ability to serve those who cannot afford any other services. Currently, families that qualify for Wisconsin Shares for school age children are granted services for before and/or after school care, but it is uncertain at this time if Wisconsin Shares will be allowed to pay for school age children to attend the MSCR sites during school hours with Wisconsin Shares funding. The sites will be providing virtual learning support to the students, but the funding comes from the child care system – whether private pay tuition or, if approved, Wisconsin Shares. A decision needs to be made quickly by the federal government about the use of Wisconsin Shares funding for child care and virtual learning services for school age children.

While the United Way of Madison has been working to coordinate with businesses to help with supplies for centers and students, the philanthropic support for low-income students has been helpful, but Manning says it’s not a sustainable source for providing child care and virtual learning support to students. Manning said it is difficult to proceed with some areas of providing care because of the lack of knowing. Manning explained that with adults having the flexibility to work from home, many identify in surveys they will need child care programs at some point, but they do not know when that point may be.

Manning said, “The questions I get every other day is ‘Why is this OK?’ If it is not safe for the kids to be in school, why is it safe for them to be in child care?” Manning emphasized that the number of children being provided early education and child care programming in school buildings is much lower than in non-pandemic times, and the programs are very controlled. Students are being put into groups, the groups do not interact with one another, masks are being worn by all children 5 years of age and older, all staff and teachers are wearing masks, and kids are being distanced.  Manning said it is not like a school setting where students are intermingling or passing through halls in large groups. Elementary kids have their own spaces both indoor and outdoor.  Programs are doing everything they can to mitigate the risk for students and their families. However, Manning said at some point the pressure to have more children in care will be higher as more parents return to work. Manning said the more businesses can do to provide flexibility to working parents in terms of flexible schedules and teleworking until there is a vaccine the easier it will be for everyone. Manning insisted the return to ‘normal’ would not be a light switch that is suddenly turned on, but rather everything will open at a controlled pace slowly building need and demand for more services.

Milwaukee Starting Discussion on What’s Next

In Milwaukee, Danae Davis, Executive Director of Milwaukee Succeeds, and Daria Hall, Policy Director for the Wisconsin Partnership said conversations about how the schools will open and what the needs are for early childhood education and school age child care and support services discussions are just starting. Davis and Hall are part of a collection of civic response teams in Milwaukee working to ensure care and support for families. The groups have been focusing on early childhood education, K-12, food, shelter, physical health, mental health, and economic recovery in the community.

Hall said in Milwaukee far too many families, especially minorities, are without access to quality affordable early childcare and education, and Covid-19 has made that worse. Hall stated that this spring one of every three early child care center closed temporarily, and hopefully with the support of the state and local philanthropic support have provided a bridge and lifeline to providers so they can reopen. Hall emphasized that with the uncertainty of schools being in-person, the need for care and support for school-aged children will grow.

Davis highlighted the additional need for early child care and education is part of the call for the civic response teams.  The groups are approaching this challenge in a collective way, discussing the opportunities and the challenges facing families in Milwaukee. Davis said the groups are working to communicate with one another so they “are finding themselves on the same page, instead of working at odds with one another.” Davis highlighted the need for access to technology and Wi-Fi, discussing how the digital divide has impacted families in Milwaukee. Davis discussed how the City of Milwaukee and Employee Milwaukee, among others, are working together through community navigators to share information on the ground. The navigators are on the ground in the communities in Milwaukee providing safe spaces for those in need, sharing resources, and helping with mental health services, food, shelter, etc. Davis said that by having grassroots in neighborhoods all the work is being data driven.

Hall said the biggest challenge right now for early child care and education is there are so many children who need a safe place to go and support. Hall emphasized, “The system was already strained, and now we are putting more demand on a system that isn’t adequality resourced. Everyone is trying to figure this out in real-time. There are needs and demands and we need a long-term plan. We are not always equipped to respond to the need.”

Davis shared her concerns for the risk of loss for the community which she says will be devastating for children in Milwaukee. Davis said, “If we can’t figure out how to give them what they need, the safe space, early child care and education, solid K-12, I worry about the loss. Layer that on the scarcity of teacher talent of early educators.  We treat them like second class citizens. Most of the providers are black and brown and female. We are not paying them what they are worth. They cannot afford to feed their own families.  We need a workforce strategy that addresses the supply need for early childcare and education. There are providers that cannot open because they don’t have the staff.”

Hall said the state and federal government need to send a message to providers through resource allocation. She emphasized that the early childcare and education sector is critical for the economy. Hall praised the philanthropic support the community has received, but said it is not sustainable to address the real issues.

Davis was quick to say the question being asked right now among many is ‘how did we get here?’ She says the answer is underinvestment at every level, coupled with a lack of respect for the people providing early child care and education. Davis pointed to the research showing the amount of brain development in the first five years of life, highlighting that it lays the foundation for an individual’s life. Yet she said the early child care and education sector has long been under-supported and under-appreciated. Davis said now is an opportunity to address the most powerful opportunities society must support children and families. “Everything starts with a new respect for the sector. If that happens, then parents will feel supported.”

Hall was quick to emphasize that women have been a large part of the workforce, yet little attention is paid to what that means for development of children. Hall said society needs to invest in early child care and education to help women grow and strive and continue to be valuable assets to the workforce.

Davis and Hall closed the interview by saying they are working in Milwaukee with stakeholders and everyone wants to help, but quickly said this is a statewide issue, not just Milwaukee. Davis said the challenge will be building a reputation and a respect for early child care and education and working in conjunction with K-12 to do that. Hall said more than half of Wisconsin is a child care desert. Because of the pandemic, more than one quarter of child care programs could close permanently. Hall emphasized that would “stop Wisconsin’s economic recovery in its tracks.” She said, “We need to come together across all areas. Wisconsin needs to recover, child care must recover.”

Door County Finds Community Support to Open New Center

Door County needed child care providers prior to the pandemic shutdown, but the need was accelerated during the shutdown and two sisters are taking on the challenge.

The YMCA Barker Center provided child care and early education in the Door County area for years.  When the pandemic hit the Center offered care to essential working families. The care lasted for only a few weeks because there was not a need. Essential working families found other providers – older siblings, older students, families, and relatives, so July 1 the Barker Center announced it would be closing its doors. Alexis Fuller, the former Child Development Director at the Barker Center, and her sister Bridgett Star, an employee at the Nicolet Bank, knew something needed to be done. Fortunately, a community task force to address the issue of affordable child care had been organized in February before the COVID-19 epidemic.  The task force was convened by the United Way of Door County and included key community stakeholders including the hospital, local banks, other Door County businesses, school representatives, and local government officials. Fuller and Starr were able to tap into that network to garner information and support to explore the possibility of opening a new child care center. The first thing the task force did was to find a building. The YMCA was willing to lease the Barker Center space to the hospital, which then leased it back to Fuller and Star. The ladies were able to hire 22 staff that previously worked at the Barker Center, and with the Facebook opening announcement, the center had a list of 126 children to fill 91 slots.

Christina Studebaker, the Community Impact Coordinator for United Way Door County led the child care task force and said the key to making everything work was communication. Studebaker said this is the beginning for the task force underlining that there are multiple layers that need to be addressed: younger children, older children, and the workforce. Studebaker said everything rests on a foundation of accessible affordable child care.

Cori McFarlane, the Door County Deputy Director for the Department of Health and Human Services said the County is working closely with the school districts and Emergency Operations as the schools decide what model they will be using when school starts in the fall. She highlighted that many schools are not sure whether they will hold in-person classes, virtual classes, or a hybrid of both. McFarlane said the County sees both child care and K-12 status as issues for county government. She explained that many of the county employees are young people with children and child care needs.

Studebaker explained that the task force is looking at different models for child care support services and WECA has helped with their shared service support. Studebaker explained that the task force is looking at different child care models and has communicated with WECA about the possibility of Door County joining WECA’s shared services network.  Studebaker emphasized that the task force is being thoughtful in its exploration of options and how it approaches solutions because the goal is to provide stable, long-term child care options to families across all of Door County.

Fuller and Star said the Door County community has really stepped forward. Fuller said once the building was secured and staff was retained then they turned their attention to increasing pay for staff and making sure employees could build a career. The women are working with the task force and other community entities to do fundraising to provide scholarships and reduce tuition rates for families. They emphasized the fundraising is about long-term sustainability of the child care center, not just about daily operational costs. The ladies highlighted there is more need in the community than they can currently provide.

Fuller said child care is a national issue that needs to be addressed, emphasizing that low staff wages result in frequent turnover. She said staff get a degree yet are not able to even afford to live, so they move on. Fuller said child care providers depend on tuition and do not get government funding like K-12 does. She said the missing piece of the early child care system is the government, emphasizing she believes the government needs to invest in the family workers to build thriving communities.

One concern Fuller, Star and Studebaker commented on is the gap for 4-year-old kindergarten students. Fuller said they would like to work with the K-12 schools to ensure no students are left behind, but said they haven’t been able to start those conversations yet since they are still working towards opening the doors of the new child care center September 8.

McFarlane said she does not believe the DCF website accurately portrays the depths of the child care crisis in Wisconsin. She said if you look at the DCF listings of available child care providers, then remove the camps, more communities are in child care deserts than it appears. She said Door County has six in-home providers and many in the County are left with no childcare options. She said families are traveling long distances for child care needs and it is a big issue. Star said if the community wants to attract and retain young families, they need to address the child care shortage.