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MEDFORD, Mass. — A year later, Roxana Contreras would say she didn’t know what she was thinking. But in the early spring of 2020, her business in shambles and bills to pay, she decided that she had no choice but to sell her house. The building was also the site of Contreras’s business: a small in-home child-care program called Gummy Bears that she had painstakingly nurtured for 14 years. “I was so worried,” Contreras recalls, “we were running out of money … and there were no kids.”

Contreras’s entire stream of income vanished on March 22, 2020, the date by which the state asked most programs to close. In Massachusetts, scores of child-care programs did not qualify for most government aid programs, including the federal CARES Act, which propped up the state’s public schools with nearly $550 million in 2020. And unlike some other providers, Contreras refused to keep charging families to hold spots for a service she could no longer provide. “The parents shouldn’t have to pay for something they were not getting,” she says. “We were all going through the same thing, struggling financially.”

Later in the spring, Contreras agreed to sell her house for a bargain price (Zillow now estimates its value at double the sale price). She then sold most of Gummy Bears’ equipment before moving into a nearby rental unit in a house just a couple of blocks away. There, Contreras, her husband, who helped run another day care and was also out of work, and her 71-year-old mother subsisted on unemployment.

Contreras, an immigrant for El Salvador, worked all manner of jobs in the United States before discovering her passion for child care. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

Although she felt deeply uncertain when — or if — her child-care program might reopen, within a few weeks Contreras had set up a tidy space in the basement of the house, with a new alphabet carpet on the floor, bean-bag stuffed animals hanging from the rafters, and toddler-sized chairs. One way or another, she hoped to keep educating young kids. “There’s a genuine love that only children can give,” she says. “Children love in a way that adults cannot.”

The pandemic decimated the child-care industry, and the damage is not yet done.

Across the country, about 10 percent of programs — some 20,000 of them — have closed permanently, according to estimates by Rasheed Malik, associate director of research for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.

“I say it for a lot of providers I have known who struggled as well: I wish there had been a little more support for us.”

Maria Teresa Manrique, a Massachusetts child care provider

Four in five suffered from a staffing shortage this summer. And more than a third of early childhood educators recently reported that they were considering leaving their programs, or the field itself, within the next year — a figure that rises to 55 percent at minority-owned businesses, according to a survey released in July from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

In Massachusetts, the situation has been especially dire. The size of the state’s child-care workforce was 41 percent smaller in the third quarter of 2020 when compared with before the pandemic, according to a recent analysis from Chris Herbst, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs. That’s the weakest rebound of any state in the country. And it gives families even more limited options in the state with the highest child-care costs in the nation, second only to Washington, D.C.

It is a catastrophe entirely of our own making. But it’s also within our power to fix.

Unlike most developed nations, America has never treated care of its youngest children as a public good worthy of significant public investment, especially in relation to K-12 public education. That’s to the detriment of children, their families, and the hundreds of thousands of (mostly) women who work in the field.

Indeed, the pandemic highlighted the vast gulf in America that separates K-12 teachers from many child-care professionals when it comes to pay, job protection, and respect. It is a disparity rooted in race, class, gender, and nativism. More than 90 percent of those who work with the youngest children are female — about 1 in 55 American women in the workforce — more than a third are people of color, and they are more likely to be immigrants and come from lower-income backgrounds than public school teachers.

It is also rooted in history. “I argue it started in 1619,” with the free care that enslaved people were forced to provide for infants and toddlers, says Maurice Sykes, senior associate at the Early Childhood Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C. “K-12 is seen as part of the public good whereas child care is seen as part of the service industry.”

Inside Gummy the new Bears Daycare Center location. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

The irony, of course, is that modern child care is far from free. But that’s not because the workers are making high wages — or even living wages, in many instances. It’s because of the comparative lack of public investment.

The average European Union country spends $4,700 per child from infancy to age 5 — a number that climbs to $7,400 in France — compared with just $2,400 in the United States, according to a new US Department of the Treasury report.

“Every ‘civilized’ country has some system of early care and education regardless of [family] income,” Sykes says. “We do not have that commitment.”

Related: Our fragile child care ‘system’ may be about to shatter

In Massachusetts, the first state in the country to provide free, public education, there’s a unique opportunity to make that commitment. A bill filed in February, known as Common Start, would ramp up public funding for child care with an ambitious end goal: within the next five years, no family would have to pay more than 7 percent of their income toward child care — and wages for teachers and staff would become commensurate with those in the public schools. (The Common Start proposal shares much in common with portions of President Biden’s Build Back Better economic recovery plan, which was being debated by Congress in October.)

The exodus of women from the workforce over the last year and a half has laid bare the dire need for more accessible, affordable child care. And politicians including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Kamala Harris have been increasingly vocal in agitating for change.

Yet the essential workers who risked their lives to reopen child-care programs across the state over the past 19 months have too often remained invisible.

“We asked them to come into work before we even knew how Covid was transmitted.”

Martha Christenson Lees, former director of the Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education

If anything, in Massachusetts, the pandemic widened the gulf between K-12 and child-care teachers: the latter were expected to return in person far earlier, with far fewer safeguards — like regular Covid testing — to protect them. “We asked them to come into work before we even knew how Covid was transmitted,” says Martha Christenson Lees, former director of the Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education who continues to work as a research affiliate at the college. “We were asking those with very low pay . . . to do these extraordinary things.”

Within the next few months, we will see how far Massachusetts lawmakers are willing to go in acknowledging — and rectifying — that debt.

“We’ve shown during the pandemic that we were essential — essential in helping solve problems for parents and helping schools,” says Johany Bobadilla, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has run her own program in Boston since 2004. “From now on I would like to see people value the work we do in home day cares.”

Roxana Contreras grew up caring for younger kids. When she was 12, her mother, Doris, left their hometown of Sensuntepeque, in northern El Salvador, hoping to earn more money in the United States for her family. That left Roxana and her father in charge of five younger children. “We missed growing up with a mother,” Contreras says. “But maybe this is why I am such a fighter.”

Contreras married at the age of 20. Although both she and her husband, Gilberto Alexander Cruz, had solid jobs, as a hair stylist and a lawyer, respectively, wages were low in El Salvador. Worse, as their two young sons approached school-age, the couple increasingly worried about the violence around them. With mixed feelings, they decided to join relatives in California. “We came here for a dream of better,” she says.

During their first years in the United States, in the 2000s, Contreras worked all manner of jobs: washing and folding clothes in a laundromat, cleaning rooms in a hotel, packing chickens in a processing plant, adding decorations to desserts at a Cheesecake Factory. Her husband “worked in a field, he had his hands hurt, he was sunburned,” she says. “However, he didn’t give up.”

Contreras, an immigrant for El Salvador, worked all manner of jobs in the United States before discovering her passion for child care. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

After two years in California, the family moved across the country to Medford, where a relative had a home and Contreras eventually found work as an assistant in a child-care program. She made only $7 per hour but saw a new kind of potential. When an opportunity arose to work in an apprentice-like position to the owners of a home-based program, she jumped on it. Contreras spent three years learning the business from the proprietors of Teddy Bears — the wife Colombian, the husband American — helping them open a sister program: Busy Bears. She eventually set up Gummy Bears, her own center.

Related: Her child care center was already on the brink — then coronavirus struck

For more than a decade pre-pandemic, Gummy Bears had more demand than supply. The children, all under the age of 5, ate two home-cooked meals a day, learned essential literacy skills in a bilingual setting, and not infrequently drifted into sleep at nap time in Contreras’s arms. (My daughter briefly and happily attended Gummy Bears as a 2-year-old in 2020.)

Contreras always employed two assistants at Gummy Bears, several of whom went on to open their own day cares. Eventually, her husband took over some management of Teddy Bears. The couple ran a small network that earned a steady income and fed her soul. “I’m proud of what I have done here,” Contreras says. “I came here with nothing . . . . Here, it’s hard, but if one has determination, they can go far.”

Then Covid cases began to appear.

It’s never easy to achieve financial stability in the early childhood field — particularly for caregivers who don’t own or run programs. Well before the pandemic, a national survey found that the families of nearly half of child-care workers received public assistance. Nationally, preschool teachers working in community-based programs earn only about half as much as similarly qualified teachers in public schools. In Massachusetts, the median preschool teacher salary across settings was just $38,563 in 2020, according to federal data.

The cause is simple: lack of government funding. The government usually only subsidizes early childhood education for lower-income families who receive state-funded vouchers or subsidies. Many states and cities have also created or expanded publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs. But those programs are hardly universal — serving 44 percent of 4-year-olds and only 17 percent of 3-year-olds nationwide.

Most families are on their own when it comes to finding — and paying for — care and education during their children’s pivotal early years. On average, American families in this group spend about 13 percent of their household income on child care, according to the US Treasury.

The lack of public investment has been fueled by many factors, including the persistent belief that mothers and young children “belong” at home and ignorance of how much children learn from birth through age 5. Yet, it also stems from a longstanding degradation of child care and domestic work in the United States that is both gendered and racialized, says Maurice Sykes.

Enslaved people commonly worked as wet nurses “who were to serve and feed masters’ children at the neglect of their own, many of whom starved to death,” he says. “I think the field has to realize that in spite of everything it thinks about itself, it is still regarded as a servant class.”

In Massachusetts, more than 40 percent of people licensed to work in child care identify as women of color, compared with less than 10 percent of the state’s public school teachers. One in five caregivers at the state’s family child-care programs report their primary language as Spanish. (Most of the child-care proprietors in this article were interviewed in Spanish with the help of interpreter Ester Serra Luque.)

Related: Funding and training is rarely available when your child care is friends, neighbors

“There has been an undeniable racial dynamic,” says Elliot Haspel, author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It. “Women of color have been subsidizing the entire system by taking very low wages.  . . . We’ve long exploited their labor.”

When policy makers discuss early childhood education, which has been rarely, they tend to focus on the affordability for the consumers rather than the poor conditions for the workforce. Sykes argues that we need to focus more on the “moral and ethical issue that many of the people who look after our children are, themselves, in need of food.”

Even before the pandemic, Florence Doe’s financial situation seemed bleak. For the past four years, Doe, an immigrant from Liberia, has run a small home child-care program in Worcester with the goal of providing affordable care for other West African families. She and her husband fled Liberia in 2000 after her father-in-law and brother-in-law were killed in the country’s civil war.

 “Women of color have been subsidizing the entire system by taking very low wages. We’ve long exploited their labor.”

Elliot Haspel, author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It

Doe’s program was always small, but, along with her husband’s salary, they could support their two daughters. Then Doe’s husband died in the summer of 2019. “He went to bed and never woke up,” she says. Overwhelmed with grief, Doe temporarily closed her program between August and November. When the pandemic hit, she was just beginning to regain her financial footing.

In the early months of Covid, she thought about permanently closing the program. “I could go work somewhere for $15, $16, $18 an hour and make more money,” she says. But she realized she had too much passion for the work. “This is what I love to do so I am going to continue to do it.”

There have been two large efforts in Massachusetts over the past 15 years to organize child-care workers to fight for better pay and working conditions. The first, led by the Service Employees International Union, which represents nursing home, food service, and janitorial workers, among others, focused on the approximately 2,400 home-based providers that accept children from low-income families whose tuition is paid for by the state. More than 92 percent of its child-care members are women, and well over half identify as people of color.

The union bargains directly with the state on behalf of home-based providers over such issues as the per diem reimbursement rate for children on state subsidies, paid time off for family child-care operators, and money to support training.

Before SEIU stepped in, “We didn’t have a voice and we didn’t have a vote,” says Maritza Manrique, an immigrant from Colombia who runs a small child-care program in her East Boston home. “It really changed our lives when the union became a formal thing.”

Maritza Manrique, an immigrant from Colombia, runs a small child care program in her East Boston home. Credit: Scott LaPierre for the Boston Globe

However, there are thousands of child-care workers SEIU does not represent, including family operators that don’t take children through subsidies (such as Contreras), the assistants who work at home-based sites, or anyone at non-home-based sites (such as YMCAs, Bright Horizons, Boys & Girls Clubs, and many others).

The other movement came several years ago, when the country’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, tried to organize another portion of the child-care field, focusing on the thousands of instructors who worked at centers like the YMCA.

Despite years of organizing and lobbying, the campaign ended in 2014. At issue in its failure, according to two of the effort’s leaders, was the resistance of the leadership at organizations like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club, who worried about the union interfering in their operations.

State lawmakers were also disinclined to invest significantly more money in the workforce, says Tom Clarke, who helped organize the campaign. Many of the workers were “high school graduates who did not have a master’s degree or doctorate,” Clarke says. “It had to do with respect.”

The pandemic made the teachers union defeat especially bitter: Perhaps, had some child-care workers been grouped among their K-12 peers and represented by their union’s powerful voice, the past 19 months would have gone very differently.

Maria Teresa Manrique felt anxious about reopening her home day care in June of 2020 when the state lifted its closure order. “The problems with Covid were still out there,” she says. But there was a financial imperative: The state subsidies for programs that serve low-income children were only guaranteed through the end of the month, and she wasn’t making any income from private pay students at the time. She had already fallen behind on bills.

“It was true for all of us that we felt fear but I had to reopen,” says Manrique, a single mother (and Maritza Manrique’s sister). “It seemed like the only way to move forward.”

Four children returned, and everything went fine for a few months. Manrique was vigilant about handwashing, cleaning, and wearing masks. In early November, however, she suddenly fell ill. She temporarily closed the program and took a Covid test, which ultimately came back positive (she says no one else tested positive but her).

 “Every penny I have, I have to spend it. I wish I could be able to save something.”

Florence Doe, a child care provider

Manrique, whose symptoms grew steadily worse, hesitated to go to the hospital because it would mean leaving her 14-year-old daughter alone. Then one evening she couldn’t breathe and collapsed. Her daughter called an aunt, who called an ambulance.

Manrique would later learn that a parent had tested positive but continued to bring her child to the day care. Manrique spent the next two months fighting for her health — and life. One night, the doctors told her that if she didn’t breathe more easily soon, they would need to put her on a ventilator. “You are in that situation,” she says, “and you feel that your life is escaping you.”

Manrique thought of her daughter, summoning all her strength. After eight days, hospital physicians released her to recover alone at home. There, she spent weeks hooked up to a heart rate machine monitored 24-7. She struggled to stand and move around.

When Manrique finally regained more strength two months later, she faced the same hard choice she had encountered over the summer: open the child care and risk her health, or stay closed and risk economic devastation. To receive payment during her illness for the children on state subsidies, she submitted detailed paperwork, including doctors’ testimonials showing that, yes, an ambulance had come for her and, yes, she really had been quite sick. Still, she owed money to her landlord, as well as the gas and electric companies.

Meanwhile, Covid had left her suffering from arthritis and with persistent liver problems that doctors suspect will linger for years.

She decided to reopen in February. Given her health, Manrique hired an assistant to help. I was “not feeling 100 percent well but I had no other option,” she says. “I don’t say it [just] for me, I say it for a lot of providers I have known who struggled as well: I wish there had been a little more support for us.”

In so many instances, support and protections for child-care workers during the pandemic have lagged behind what public school teachers could access (even in cases when support for teachers has been far from ideal).

In Medford, where Gummy Bears is located, public school teachers gradually returned to partial in-person instruction between late September 2020 and early 2021. In the neighboring city of Somerville, no teachers returned in person until early in 2021.

Most Massachusetts public K-12 teachers had powerful unions advocating for their safety. In Medford, for instance, the union helped negotiate for quality air filtration and maximal social distancing. One of the town’s teachers says her classroom was “probably the size of 2.5 regular classrooms — kids were eight feet apart at least and there was a lot of air exchange.”

Contreras with children in Gummy Bears’ new location. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

The teacher, who did not want to be named due to the contentiousness surrounding school return in Medford, received on-site testing once a week as soon as she returned in person. That increased to two days a week when pool testing came to Massachusetts schools in the winter.

“There were measures put in place that worked because it wasn’t like I didn’t have Covid around me,” she says. “There was Covid in my classroom multiple times.”

She was one of relatively few Boston-area teachers back in the classroom for most of the 2020-2021 school year. In late March 2021, the head of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts said it was unfair and unrealistic for the state to require school staff to return to in-person classes without the protection of a vaccine.

In Somerville, child-care educators “fought and fought and fought” for access to regular, free testing, says Sarah Sian, who until recently served as executive director of the city’s Open Center for Children child-care program. Her center is 100 yards from a public school where K-12 teachers could go for free testing, even during the months they worked from home. “We couldn’t walk over there and get tested with their educators,” she says. “That was pretty devastating to us.”

Then, when the state announced pool testing for schools, starting in February, child-care workers were once again left out. “Somerville was pool testing their teachers when schools weren’t even open,” Sian says.

 When the staff at the Open Center for Children finally got access to free, asymptomatic testing in early 2021 — more than six months after they reopened — they had to drive across town, a difficult proposition while caring for young children all day.

Another financial blow came in 2020 when Governor Charlie Baker chose not to spend any of the discretionary CARES Act funding on early childhood education, allocating only the $45 million the federal government had specifically earmarked for child care (which only went to programs that take subsidies and/or stayed open for essential workers between March and June 2020, per state budget legislation).

The Massachusetts K-12 system, by contrast, received upward of $500 million between the spring and fall of 2020 — about 10 times what the early education system received. Though few begrudged K-12 schools the money, the disparity was striking.

“In the early days of the pandemic, child cares were opened, child-care workers were considered front line, yet child cares couldn’t get money,” says Lauren Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, which advocates for child-care reform.

Child-care providers could apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, even if the proprietor was the sole “employee,” though it wasn’t an easy process for family child cares in particular. “Many do not have very sophisticated accounting processes,” says Kennedy. “And in many cases it was a center director navigating how to do this, while also doing the 900 things required to run a school.” Only an estimated 1 in 5 of the state’s child-care programs received the loans, according to a report from the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center.

When Contreras reopened Gummy Bears for just a couple of children in the summer of 2020, she received no financial support from the government.

She didn’t qualify for CARES. And when she inquired about the Payroll Protection Program, she discovered that her payroll system would need an overhaul. (She dreaded the idea of a loan anyway, worried that it might propel her into debt if she couldn’t pay it back.) “I’m very bad with technology,” she says. “Maybe there has been a lot of financial assistance, but I couldn’t get it.”

It took many months over late 2020 and early 2021 for parents to feel comfortable and for the children to trickle back. “I had to advertise on the radio and social media. I had to make signs. I had to advertise myself everywhere because there are no children,” she says. “I have never in many years of business had to put signs on my day care. Parents always recommended me to others and there was a long wait list.”

Contreras got vaccinated almost as soon as she was eligible in March — with some help from a Gummy Bears parent, a physician, who showed her how to navigate the online system for an appointment. Yet, still, the kids did not come.

For nearly a year — from July 2020 to June 2021 — there weren’t enough children to justify the expense of hiring an assistant. So Contreras’s mother, Doris, a licensed caregiver herself, helped out. “I feel bad when I have to ask my mother to do things,” she says. “I don’t feel comfortable giving her orders.”

As more families began at least to inquire over the summer, she started the hunt for an assistant. It took months to find someone available even part time, amidst the widespread shortage of child-care workers. Many of her former assistants had taken better paying jobs working directly for families as nannies, Contreras says. In response, she boosted the position’s pay, and eventually found someone to start.

Meanwhile, paying rent for a space large enough to house her business and her family feels like a waste of money. But after the hasty sale of her house last year, Contreras was priced out of the market for a new one. “Every time I go by that old house,” she says, “I regret selling it.”

The state’s Department of Early Education and Care has been working hard to get federal dollars into the hands of providers as fast as possible, some advocates say. That’s in spite of limited staffing and a budgeting and distribution process that’s not only extraordinarily complicated but unprecedented.

“Relief funds for schools were larger and much faster — as soon as they were released, you had that money flying into the districts,” says Colin Jones, a senior policy analyst with the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. The Department of Early Education and Care has been “making this up as they go along but doing a pretty good job,” he adds.

The department offered some pop-up testing for early educators beginning in early 2021 and, since June, it has supported a pool testing effort for the providers that was organized by Neighborhood Villages. It has also invested more than $44 million since February into providing personal protective equipment — including gloves, masks, bleach, and disinfectant wipes — to nearly 6,000 providers across the state, according to a spokesperson. It continues to pay subsidies for eligible lower-income children even when they are not regularly attending programs — a departure from pre-pandemic practice.

This summer, licensed child-care programs in the state at last received some welcome news: By following a comparatively easy application process, they can receive monthly operating grants through the American Rescue Plan. Unlike the CARES Act money, which was limited by state budget language to only a slice of the child-care landscape, the new grants are available to all — including both home-based providers and larger centers like YMCAs. (In October, the grants were extended from six to 12 months.)

Related: One year later, child care closures aren’t as bad as feared— but long-term issues still loom

Early educators in the state have fared better than before in the later rounds of federal pandemic relief, says Jones, with $131 million coming through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of December 2020, and $510 million through the American Rescue Plan.

Meanwhile, the state’s Common Start bill, which would increase pay for early education teachers, including home-based programs, and cut costs for families, has momentum in the Legislature, with 126 lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors.

Yet Common Start would cost significant money: hundreds of millions in budget increases for each of five years. While that might be feasible in the short term, with the federal pandemic relief money available, it would require a substantial long-term increase at both the federal and state levels to sustain. Once fully phased in, the program would cost an estimated $2 billion each year, according to its backers.

State lawmakers have failed in the past to allocate enough dollars even to make the Boston Public Schools’ kindergarten program for 4-year-olds truly universal. “We have yet to see the Legislature put [enough] money behind [early education],” Sian says.

It will require a shift in mind-set for lawmakers and a citizenry accustomed to taking the work — and workers — far too much for granted. It will require, as Sian puts it, “an acceptance of early childhood as a public good.”

“There’s a genuine love that only children can give. Children love in a way that adults cannot.”

Roxana Contreras, a Massachusetts child care provider

In the meantime, the financial peril persists for many of the state’s child-care providers. Maria Teresa Manrique is still struggling to catch up with utilities payments. Florence Doe continues to owe taxes. “Every penny I have, I have to spend it. I wish I could be able to save something,” she says, adding, “I want to give God the praise for allowing me to stay in this country and run this day care.”

The news this summer of the upcoming monthly operations grants cheered Contreras, who is using the money — $1,600 per month — to help pay for her assistants. By October she had eight students enrolled, two shy of her goal of 10. Within a few months she hopes she might approach the financial stability she had in early March 2020 — minus, of course, a house.

“Thank God I’m still here with strength and energy,” she says. “My family is healthy and safe. The truth is, the pandemic actually respected me.”

Yet, as 2021 wore on and the Delta variant spread, Contreras increasingly feared that all her work rebuilding Gummy Bears could be destroyed once again. She didn’t intend to stay open if she felt unsafe. She knew that she couldn’t count on the pandemic respecting her forever. And, she says, “I am not going to risk my life or the lives of children.”

Sarah Carr, former editor of The Boston Globe’s Great Divide education team, is an O’Brien Fellow in Public Service Journalism and author of the book Hope Against Hope, about New Orleans schools.

This story about child care providers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Sarah Carr edits stories and contributes reporting from New England. From 2011 to 2014, she oversaw Hechinger's coverage of New Orleans and Mississippi. Since then, she has led an investigative education...

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