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In January, the U.S. Census Bureau released national data showing that  nearly 40 percent of parents with children younger than age 5 had experienced disruption in child care in recent weeks. Disruption for parents means they can’t go to work or are figuring out late into the night where they might be able to cobble together child care.

Disruption for children is even worse. Their daily routines are sacrificed: It puts their wake-up, drop-off and pick-up times and where they will be napping, eating and playing in flux. This, in turn, can lead to behavioral challenges.

If this sounds chaotic, it is. A sense of uncertainty and stress has become a constant for too many young children and their parents.

And also for providers. Survey data reveals that staff shortages during the pandemic have caused such emotional distress that one in five early educators is considering leaving the child care field entirely.

Early educators have among the lowest compensation of any category of workers. As more and more providers leave the workforce, those left behind bear a heavier burden.

Who will care for our nation’s children as we seek to recover economically?

Our parents, early learning providers and program administrators are overwhelmed, overburdened and under-resourced, and our kids are feeling the impact. Cumulatively, this puts the mental health of all at stake.

Too many parents also struggle to pay for child care. Children get the care their parents can afford, and the costs rival those of in-state college tuition. All the while, early educators manage the costs of providing care through low wages and strained working conditions. Quality suffers.

We must transform our approach to child care and early childhood education.

Related: We struggle to measure quality child care — and even more to fund it

The science is clear: The earliest years lay a foundation for the brain and body architecture that will support a child’s ability to learn, and for their lifelong social, emotional and physical health. Why then are parents, children and early educators not guaranteed support through policies that ensure early childhood systems of care are resilient, equitable, high-quality and accessible for all?

Today’s parents and providers face the same challenges that have been true for too many decades. What is different, of course, is the pandemic, and the deep, exacerbated challenges we collectively bear as a result.

Inequities emerge.

The preparations for and response to this most recent surge of the coronavirus have been inadequate and uneven for children from birth to age 5. Too many very young children remain ineligible for vaccination. And while masking is an effective mitigation measure to combat virus spread for children over age 2, some pediatricians and federal authorities have advised that children age 2 and under should not wear masks throughout the day.

Too many child care programs still lack adequate access to Covid testing. Unlike testing programs operating under large school districts or health systems, child care programs are largely independent businesses.

Who will care for our nation’s children as we seek to recover economically?

Both regular PCR testing and rapid testing are needed, but few states are offering them in child care centers. It is deeply disappointing to see leaders, yet again, build the needed testing infrastructure in other sectors but not in child care.

Such inequities perpetuate and widen existing racial inequity, given that young children and early learning providers are disproportionately Black and Latino.

While the CDC released guidance in late January about how early educators should work to prevent the virus from spreading in child care settings, that information came too late for the omicron variant surge. State systems and providers had already undertaken the steps they thought necessary to keep families and children safe.

That has left an already vulnerable population even more vulnerable.

That’s why, in the future, guidance must be timely and readily available for the youngest children. As we see it, the solutions here are straightforward.

First, every level of government should begin investing in social and emotional supports for young children now. We must heed the calls from the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics that we are facing a mental health crisis among this generation of young children who have undergone extraordinary stress and trauma over the past two years.

Second, public health agencies must align the release of their guidance, and their investment in needed supports, for public elementary schools and early educators. As we learn more about the transmission and prevention of Covid, guidance changes. However, guidance for early care and education spaces has regularly been delayed for weeks or months beyond release of guidance for elementary schools. To continue this pattern reinforces the notion that we, as a country, do not value early care and education.

Third, states and the federal government should increase compensation funding for early educators so that child care as a field can attract and retain staff. This is something states can begin to do — and many have — with the nearly $40 billion in federal relief funding they received through the American Rescue Plan. It can be sustained if Congress passes significant, long-term investment in child care; given the dire need, it makes little sense not to do so.

If we fail to take action and neglect the supports necessary for young children, families and providers to weather this pandemic, the outcome for our children and our future will be both predictable and tragic.

Lynette M. Fraga is CEO of Child Care Aware® of America, a national membership organization working to ensure all families have access to quality, affordable child care. Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett is a pediatrician and social epidemiologist, and an associate professor at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine.

This story about improving the child care system was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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