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MDHS child care providers
The infant room at St. Paul Learning Center in Brandon was rearranged following advice from Early Years Network staff to allow more room for tummy time. The state will terminate its contract with the organization at the end of this year. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

Mississippi is scrambling to qualify for a guarantee of up to $61 million to help families pay for child care after the federal government said the state must do more to train center workers and ensure it is paying centers adequately.

Families of about 20,000 Mississippi children depend on the money to afford child care, according to 2015 state data. The funding, from the federal Child Care and Development Fund, also helps the state’s centers improve quality.

In late June, Mississippi received a letter from the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office saying that the plan the state submitted in order to receive funds had been conditionally approved. But to win final approval, the state first had to train the nearly 8,000 child care workers employed by centers who receive federal funds in 10 health and safety topics such as sudden infant death syndrome, response to food allergies, emergency preparedness, first aid and CPR. The state also had to complete a statewide survey of child care providers linking center reimbursement to market prices to show that rates “are sufficient to provide access to child care services for eligible families that are comparable to those provided to families that do not receive subsidies.”

The state has until Oct. 1 to make the changes. It will complete its market price survey by that date and began the first of the training sessions two weeks ago.

Related: For Mississippi parents, child care costs lead to tough choices

Mississippi officials decided to use community colleges to conduct the training instead of the Early Years Network, the state-contracted agency that has been Mississippi’s main training and resource program for child care centers and parents. This week state officials said they would cut funding to the Early Years Network, a department housed at Mississippi State University Extension Services.

“I’m facing possible termination of my certificates. I don’t know what I else I would do.”

In order to pay for the new federal requirements, state officials had to make cuts elsewhere in the budget, according to Cathy Sykes, the deputy administrator of programs at the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS). Funding cuts to the Early Years Network — confirmed by Sykes this week — were part of the state’s effort to tighten its belt.

“We are trying to look at everywhere we are spending money to make sure we are spending as we need to, to make sure we have money to fund everything that we need to fund,” Sykes said.

Some Mississippi experts are baffled by the decision to cut ties with the Early Years Network, especially because it is listed as one of the primary agencies responsible for helping the state meet the federal requirements in the original 2016 block grant plan submitted to the federal government. The Early Years Network will lose its contract at the end of the year.

Earlier this year, The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger published “Child Care Crisis,” a series of articles outlining the lack of funding, low-standards and weak enforcement of rules that plague the state’s child care system.

You can read the whole series and even look up whether your local child care has had any violations.

In a statement, Patrick Fisher, public affairs specialist for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that states are permitted to make changes to their plan, but they must submit an amendment within 60 days of a “substantial change in the program.” Fisher added, “ACF will be tracking the state’s implementation of the law on an ongoing basis and would expect the state to stay on track with required deadlines despite any change in governance.”

A rush to train every worker

At the end of July, about a month after state officials learned they would have to meet a training requirement or risk forfeiting federal child care money, the Governor’s office and the Department of Human Services reached out to the Mississippi Community College Board, according to the board’s executive director, Andrea Mayfield, and asked the community colleges to provide the training.

“They needed our help so we stepped up to the plate,” she said.

Mississippi requires 15 contact hours of staff development training annually for each child care worker, but does not specify what workers must learn in the sessions. Centers must always have someone present who is certified in first aid and CPR. (Center directors must also complete safety training.) But those state requirements aren’t adequate to meet new federal safety benchmarks, introduced in 2014.

By the end of August, the Community College Board and the state had agreed on a plan to pay for the training from a workforce development fund used to provide professional development to employees in a variety of industries. Health and safety training would be offered free of charge at community college campuses to child care providers and their employees with early childhood development faculty serving as the trainers. Child care centers would be assigned a specific location and day — one of three Saturdays in September.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

Mayfield said the decision on when to hold the training sessions was not easy but the board and MDHS ultimately settled on weekend training because “we didn’t want there to be an issue with these child care providers having to close their agencies to come.”

The approximate number of Mississippi child care workers to whom the state must provide health and safety training by Oct. 1, or risk loss of federal funding.

But some providers say it was an issue: They had to scramble to get all members of their staff to the assigned training and had to make quick adjustments to their budgets to pay staff to attend, paying overtime in some cases.

By Thursday, 5,894 employees had registered for training, according to a presentation given by Sykes at a meeting of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council. She said attendance numbers would not be available until after the training sessions were complete, but that the department had worked with individuals who could not attend their assigned training sessions to find a replacement. She added that the Department of Human Services had heard from some providers that they would not send employees to the training and thus would stop accepting certificates at their centers

Some of the training sessions conducted so far have been massive. In one case more than 700 people in Biloxi were trained in one room by a single instructor over a four-hour period on Sept. 17, according to providers who were there.

Nancy Turk, director of Creative Learning Center in Biloxi, said her staff rearranged their personal lives to make sure they could attend. Two children at her center pay for part of their tuition with state certificate money, and she felt obligated to go. “I wouldn’t want to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t come back unless you pay full price,’” she said.

Savannah Fountain, director at Biloxi’s Caterpillar Development Center, worries she’ll lose seven children who pay subsidized tuition. Nine of her employees were able to attend their assigned Saturday training, but one couldn’t go because she observes the Sabbath.

“I’m facing possible termination of my certificates,” she said. “I don’t know what I else I would do.”

MDHS child care providers
Employees rock infants to sleep at Brandon’s St. Paul Learning Center. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

She said the employee with the Sabbath conflict has worked in child care for more than three decades and has already completed 35 hours of professional development training this year. Sykes at MDHS said additional training sessions will be offered to employees who are unable to make the Saturday sessions.

Fountain and Turk said the mandatory session didn’t cover any new ground for their workers, but Susan Edwards, the director of Jackson’s Little Cobbler Learning Center, said the required training was “very useful.” Although some of the material repeated previous training, she learned new information about health and safety.

Ending the Early Years

Some early childhood education experts and providers in Mississippi say the Early Years Network has been a bright spot in child care, especially in a state with one of the highest child poverty rates, and where child care providers in the most rural areas often receive little assistance.

Since it launched in 2014, the Early Years Network has worked with hundreds of child care employees and thousands of children and families on a range of issues, including helping centers balance budgets and create business plans and parent education classes. It runs 19 libraries statewide — two of which are mobile — with books and other materials child care centers and families can borrow.

Jennifer Henry, director of the St. Paul Learning Center in Flowood, said the Early Years Network has been a valuable resource for the past two years. Staff members from the network have helped Henry with her accounting system and her staff evaluation system and have also provided one-on-one training to Henry’s staff. They have sent experts to St. Paul’s to teach staff members about best practices in early education, like how to set up a classroom with appropriate resources and how to run activities, like learning centers.

“I don’t really know who else you would call for that kind of help,” Henry said. She added that the Health Department is so busy monitoring centers, they may not “have the time really to come and spend with you.”

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

An investigation by The Hechinger Report this year found this kind of assistance is critical in the state, where lack of funding, low-standards and weak enforcement of rules plague the child care system. Many child care centers struggle to meet minimum regulations for health and safety, with some racking up thousands of dollars in fines for leaving children unattended or with staff who haven’t passed a background check.

The Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS, is also run out of the Early Years Network. The voluntary quality improvement program rates centers on a set of standards that includes assessments of their curriculum, toys and classroom materials. Centers with higher ratings can earn larger reimbursements for children whose tuitions are partially covered by the state. Less than 40 percent of eligible centers in the state participate.

The lack of participation is one reason some have criticized the network. They say making the improvements required to receive a good review from QRIS can be cost-prohibitive for centers that serve low-income families, which includes a disproportionate number of centers run by and serving African-Americans. Provider data compiled by the Early Years Network shows black children are more likely than white children to be enrolled in centers that receive a 1, the lowest rating, but are also more likely to be enrolled in centers getting a 5, the highest. White children are over represented in centers that score a 3.

Cathy Sykes said the Department of Human Services has not yet determined who will receive new contracts to carry out the work Mississippi promised in the federal plan. The state will submit an updated plan after the Early Years Network contract ends.

At a meeting of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council on Thursday, the final public comment addressed the news that the Early Years Network would be shuttered: The speaker asked for information about where centers would get these services.

The meeting was adjourned without further comment on the issue.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

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