Stabilizing early childhood education sector

The COVID-19 public health emergency is shining a light on many of Milwaukee’s system challenges, including the community’s early childhood care and education sector. Greater Milwaukee Foundation-commissioned research shows the early education sector was operating on razor-thin margins before the crisis, leaving too many families—especially black and brown families—without access to quality, affordable care.

Now, with 1 in 3 Milwaukee providers having closed, the needs are increasingly dire for all involved. Providers face increased expenses to protect staff and children’s health while revenue is decreasing from lower utilization. Meanwhile, many essential workers still need care options and rely on providers who can provide a safe, nurturing environment for their young ones during a critical period of development. In response to both existing and emerging challenges, the MKE Civic Response Team’s Early Childhood Education Team came together to identify the sector’s greatest needs, align resources and coordinate relief efforts. 

When early childhood education providers who were seeking funding to sustain services were asked how COVID-19 has affected their programs and operations, their descriptions shared several common themes:

  • Providers are unable to find and stock cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. 
  • Fear and anxiety among staff, children and families are at an all-time high.
  • Families are leaving the programs because they are losing their jobs or they are scared of infection. 
  • A few of the programs have closed due to possible exposure or the provider was diagnosed with COVID-19. 
  • Some programs have closed and have had to lay off their staff.

“This has been a very scary situation not knowing who has the virus but willing to take the children and to keep the business up and running while the parents go out to work,” shared one provider.

Thanks to support from the Foundation’s MKE Responds Fund and the Home Grown Child Care Emergency Fund, a national collaborative of funders, the Early Childhood Education Team provided $350,000 in stabilization grants to 140 licensed family- and center-based providers in five priority ZIP codes (53204, 53206, 53210, 53215, 53218) in Milwaukee County with the highest concentration of black and Hispanic children.

The Team also facilitated the distribution of hand sanitizer, diapers, nonperishable food, juice and formula to 175 providers. Additional resources to support mental health for children, families and child care providers are being aligned with the Mental Health Civic Response Team. 

“When you are led because of a crisis and you are needing to address immediate needs, and then you find out what happens when you do that together, it does inspire us to do even more collaborative work,” said Danae Davis, executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds.   

Moving forward, providers will need ongoing support to reopen and adjust their operations to a very new context. The Early Childhood Education Team is identifying and sharing existing resources for reopening and working to fill in gaps as they find them. In addition, the team is directly informing the rules and guidance that providers should follow to ensure a safe environment for staff and families as they stay open or reopen for business. This strategy will be a part of Wisconsin’s “Badger Bounce Back Plan” and is helping to ensure that all Milwaukee providers know about and can access the state’s  Emergency COVID-19 Child Care Payment Program that is funded by the federal CARES Act.

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