Commentary: The trifecta challenge of families during COVID-19

By Kara Waddell

Only a few hours after putting my mother on a plane to fly home early from our family visit, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley rang in on my mobile.

“Better get down here, Kara, we’re making decisions now and we’re going to need child care in all this.”

Emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19 followed later that day. Having previously worked in disaster relief in Asia, I felt a familiar pit in my stomach that hits when on the edge of an emerging disaster.

With some space and time between the initial emergence of COVID-19 and our current state, it seems our experience the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be somewhat mercurial.

It is a disease that impacts the elderly, yet, in recent weeks cities have been reporting 30-40% of cases are involving 20- to 40-year-olds. It is said to be transmitted by non-symptomatic persons but then some studies indicate otherwise. Masks weren’t needed – now masks are a staple in the workplace and hanging from folks’ rear-view mirrors.

Yet some certainties are emerging from COVID-19. As an education leader, it is these certainties that worry me the most. At Child Care Associates (CCA), we focus our efforts on children from the lowest-income families. And watching these families is what has me concerned.

First, COVID-19 is currently being contracted more by persons of low-income and who are black and brown. The CDC points out that health differences that vary by race or ethnicity often point to underlying economic and social conditions. Some might more directly point to structural and justice conditions in our society.

Regardless of where you identify the cause, COVID-19 is flat out impacting families in our community differently. CCA’s team includes an African-American staff member who lost three members of her family to COVID-19 in a span of two weeks. She commented that she can’t process the grief because more keeps coming. COVID-19 has been tough on my family but doesn’t come close to her experience.

Additionally, low-income families are heavily overrepresented in unemployment numbers. Two-thirds of CCA’s Head Start families have indicated on a recent survey that their household has experienced a change in work status.

For my family, a change in work status meant working from home. For the families we serve, a change in work status means a loss of job and/or a significant loss of hours. Families are struggling to make ends meet as Fort Worth and Arlington see long queues of vehicles for a box of food or a meal. And families of color are also disproportionately impacted by COVID’s resulting economic challenges.

Yet it is this last concern that, as someone working in early education, has me particularly distressed: Education leaders nationally are predicting an explosion of achievement gaps we’ve not seen before. Nationwide.

Richard Rothstein, a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, writes frequently on achievement gaps. He asserts that the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate existing achievement gaps between middle and low-income children. The gaps that already exist will widen – again, black and brown children – will figure prominently in these statistics.

These trifecta adversities facing minority and lower-income families is what has me penning this op-ed.

For many children, an early learning center or a school is their safest place. Child abuse reports have dropped in our community while the instances of abuse that are reported are particularly severe. Why? Because the “tellers,” our teachers, doctors, religious leaders and child care workers who are mandatory reporters aren’t seeing the children.

And while all children are impacted, the impact may even be greater among our youngest children. Toxic stress in the home from economic insecurities and other factors alter how young brains develop hindering their emotional health and learning. Richard Rothstein points out in the Washington Post, “If a research consensus exists on anything in education, it is that the socioeconomic gap in cognitive performance is well-established by age 3.”

The case for quality early education among disadvantaged children has been made for decades.

If we ever needed quality early learning and care, certainly it is now. This is not a time to shy away from our Texas investment in full-day Pre-K for preschoolers made last legislative session. It is a time to shore up our investments in quality child care for infants and toddlers.

In Austin and locally, we need to continue to aim our CARES funding in meaningful ways to sustain quality child care programs. The real cost of quality child care cannot be borne by low- or middle-income families and cannot be sustained on the vapors of child care vouchers.

For those running businesses, COVID is helping executives rethink the kinds of supports and flexibilities parenting employees will need if returning to work.

While there is no silver bullet for academic achievement gaps, now is the time to double down on investments in quality early learning, including Pre-K, child care, home visiting and (Early) Head Start.