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mental health of teachers
Child care workers nationwide are worried about their own health, that of their families and their short- and long-term economic survival. Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report

Child care workers, the vast majority of whom are women, have always faced a long list of pressures. For those working through the pandemic, that stress has only increased.

“Families are happy, kids are happy, the teachers and I are completely exhausted,” said Tiffany Pearsall, the director of a child care center in Carson, Washington. “I don’t have the bandwidth for daily life anymore.”

Pearsall’s exhaustion is shared by providers across the country worried about their own health, that of their families and their short- and long-term economic survival. In lots of cases, providers are also mothers worrying about their own children, many of whom are out of school with no one to care for them.

“It is extremely stressful for family child care providers who rely solely” on their small business income to support their own families, said Oscar Tang, who does just that in San Francisco. “Additional cleaning expenses and potential fluctuating enrollment can make providers at the edge of becoming homeless or losing everything.”

Tang and his wife, Pyrena Hui, have been able to keep their business open during the pandemic, but Tang said providers they know through the Family Child Care Association of San Francisco are worried about their health, fiscal solvency and risk of getting sued if something goes wrong. For some, he said, staying in the field long-term has become untenable.

“Personally, I am beginning to explore different income opportunities,” Tang said.

Child care workers living in expensive metros like Tang and Hui are under even more pressure. In Marin County, a wealthy area north of San Francisco, a 2019 survey found that 75 percent of child care workers worried about having enough money to meet their monthly expenses and 39 percent said they were worried about having enough food on the table. Even in less expensive areas, child care workers have never had much wiggle room on finances; a 2018 survey in Minnesota found 55 percent worried about bills and 24 percent worried about food. Both surveys were conducted by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Some child care workers were already more likely to be experiencing mental or physical health conditions before the pandemic. A 2012 study found that Head Start teachers, who serve children from low-income families, were more likely than their peers to have diagnosed depression and physical health conditions like high blood pressure and asthma. A 2019 study found early childhood workers experience poor mental well-being and high rates of food insecurity. Many child care center employees lack paid sick leave, family leave and make low wages.

“These have been the women on the front line always and they’re still somewhat invisible,” said Cathy McHorse, vice president of Success by Six at the United Way of Austin. “We already knew that caregivers who provided child care for the most vulnerable families were likely to come from a history of trauma.”

The effects of the pandemic have only exacerbated that problem.

“Now they’re faced with family members dying,” said McHorse of child care providers. “Their trauma has increased.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

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