On May 27, Jenna Conway, Chief School Readiness Officer at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), presented a webinar on the state of early childhood education. In addition to recapping changes enacted during the 2020 General Assembly session that will ultimately consolidate oversight and administration of early childhood programs with VDOE as well as providing updates on the progress of the Federal Preschool Development Grant B-5 (PDG B-5), Ms. Conway presented on the state of early child care in Virginia as the Commonwealth continues to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 and the need to ensure quality childcare options for parents providing essential services and returning to work as part of the phased reopening of the state.
As previously reported, the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) issued updated guidance concerning childcare providers in light of Governor Ralph Northam’s phased approach to lifting certain restrictions on businesses in the Commonwealth. This includes opening childcare facilities to all working families, not just to the children of essential personnel. A letter from VDSS to childcare providers details the process by which childcare centers may continue operations in Phase I or by which they may reopen. This guidance is meant to ensure the safety of childcare providers and children under their care. The new state guidelines closely match Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and detail enhanced social distancing measures such as limiting capacity to 10 individuals per room, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and infection control and sanitation practices. Phase I also allows childcare programs to be made open to all working families, not just children of essential workers. As Governor Northam considers moving towards the start of Phase II, additional childcare guidelines were just released by VDSS and can be read here.
COVID-19 has significantly reduced the capacity of early childcare programs to meet existing needs. Altogether, approximately 2,600 childcare programs are temporarily closed – a loss in capacity of approximately 200,000 early childcare classroom seats. However, 365 programs have indicated that they have a reopening date under the new guidelines.
Early childcare in Virginia relies on a combination of public and private programs. Currently, all public-school preschool and early childhood special education programs (such as the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) remain closed for the school year. Nearly all Head Start programs are closed, though some Early Head Start programs are operating. Childcare operations are allowed to be open and childcare educators are considered essential personnel. More than 60% of childcare centers and faith-based preschools are closed. Additionally, one in five family day homes are closed. As phased reopening continues, these numbers are expected to improve.
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Virginia received approximately $70 million out of $3.5 billion in federal funds through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which subsidizes child care services to eligible families through vouchers or grants and contracts with child care providers. VDSS has approved more than 1,900 childcare providers for the CARES Act direct assistance program but financial losses experienced far exceed new federal funding available. Though helpful to subsidizing some childcare expenses, additional federal aid is needed according to the National Women’s Law Center and other groups.
Another area of potential concern is the potential lost learning that coincides with the closure of in-person education programs and other childcare programs. According to VDOE, recent research projects school closures could result in major declines in student learning with math taking a bigger hit than reading; some students could return in the fall with less than 50% of typical learning gains. This has the potential to impact long term development for children, as well as their performance on assessments and by extension, school accreditations. Furthermore, the disparate impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities is likely to exacerbate existing inequities in early childhood access, quality, and outcomes, leading to higher opportunity gaps. As the state moves towards full reopening, these will be challenges for educators and policy makers to overcome.
Parents who are in need of child care services should visit Child Care Aware at VAchildcare.org or call 1-866-KIDS-TLC for an up-to-date list of child care options in their area. Additionally, a map of childcare providers indicating which programs have closed and which are still operating can be found here.
Additional information and guidance from VDSS and VDOE on early childhood care can be found here and here respectively. Ms. Conway’s webinar can be viewed in full here and her PowerPoint can be downloaded here.