COVID-19 is putting preschool access for many nonwhite children at risk

January 4, 2021

As the nation struggles through both COVID-19 and critical conversations about justice and social equity, state leaders need to look inward and think about what problems they have the power to solve. A new crisis is emerging before our eyes as low-income children, many of them children of color, face new barriers to accessing early care and education.

Early education in America may again become a luxury afforded only to the wealthy. When I was governor of Mississippi, I helped create the Family Based Unified and Integrated Early Childhood System, which connects and integrates resources and services for both parents/caregivers and their children. This system was expanded as Mississippi secured a $10.6 million federal Preschool Development Grant (Birth Through Five) entitled, “Connected for Success: A Family-Based Unified and Integrated Early Childhood.”

 As in other states, this grant funding is helping to strengthen the state’s early childhood systems and improve access and quality for Mississippi families with children five and under. In 2013, the legislature also funded the Mississippi Early Learning Collaboratives that now serves public preschool services across the state. As a result of these reform efforts, Mississippi has boosted its ranking in fourth grade reading from 49th in 2013 to 29th in 2019, now leading the nation in growth, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

As we celebrate the achievements of Mississippi’s students, COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges to the nation’s child care industry. Many child care centers remained open across the nation to assist essential workers, but many have faced significant setbacks during this time. Several surveys of child care professionals predict that centers will have to close or serve fewer children in the near future to accommodate for the setback.

The Trump administration responded to the challenges presented by COVID-19 by signing into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. The CARES Act provides many supports to families and child care centers, including $3.5 billion in increased funding via the Childcare Development Block Grant.

State leaders need to use relief funds to help focus on child care access for our underserved families. About 85% of families receiving child care subsidies in Mississippi are black. Before COVID-19, close to 11% of Mississippi parents had to voluntarily leave their jobs due to child care issues. More than 40% of parents in Mississippi also postponed school or a training program due to child care issues. A steep rise in costs during the pandemic will be hard on those who lost their jobs during COVID-19 related closures. Working families need our help.

To prevent this looming crisis, state leaders should consider:

  • Temporarily increasing the rates paid to providers for subsidized care to the full market rates being charged to cash-pay parents.
  • Offsetting full costs eliminates the incentive to prioritize service to affluent children over those in greatest need.
  • Maximizing the use of the CARES Act and other funding to help subsidize child care and early education for low-income families.
  • Prioritizing the use of state dollars to continue utilizing the state system that serves children ages zero to five, including public preschool.

As our country’s current struggle with equity is splashed on the front page almost daily, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the new and potentially lasting inequities COVID-19 is about to prescribe upon our younger children. The time to act is now.

 Phil Bryant served as governor of Mississippi from 2012 to 2020.

 This opinion piece authored by Mississippi’s former Governor Phil Bryant, was published in the Washington Examiner on October 28, 2020. View it online at https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/covid-is-putting-preschool-access-for-many-non-white-children-at-risk.

©2021 BRYANT SONGY SNELL