Buffett Institute:  “Nebraska’s Child Care Industry Facing Crisis”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to compound Nebraska’s child care crisis, according to a new report from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

The Nebraska COVID-19 Early Care and Education Provider Survey III: Holding it Together-and Hanging by a Thread is the third in a series of reports over the past two years that examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Nebraska’s child care professionals and its implications for practice and policy.?

The Buffett Institute report paints a grim but resilient picture of an early childhood workforce that cares for young children. Despite daunting challenges, early childhood professionals have persevered during a pandemic that has upended their business operations and continues to have lasting impacts on their health and well-being.

The survey found that two-thirds of providers have experienced income reductions in the past year and that staff turnover is rampant. Nine in 10 providers employing staff have had difficulty hiring for open positions, citing a lack of applicants and inability to offer sufficient pay. Two-thirds of child care employers experienced staff turnover, with nearly 7 in 10 providers saying staff were leaving the field of early childhood entirely.

The survey, conducted in February, focused on owners, operators, and administrators of licensed care and education programs. More than 750 providers responded to the survey, roughly a quarter of all licensed providers in the state.

“This survey provides additional direct information about the impact of COVID-19 on the financial and physical health of the early care and education workforce,” said Kate Gallagher, director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Institute and one of the report’s authors. “We hope this information will help guide state and community efforts to support the early childhood professionals whose work is so essential for children, families, and communities in this state.”

The survey also found that:

According to an assistant director of Hamilton Heights Child Development Center in Omaha, the survey results were not surprising.  “It’s no secret that the early learning education field is experiencing a severe hiring drought,” said Dodi Imler, who has worked in early childhood for 24 years. “Those remaining in the field are overworked and underpaid. Teachers are leaving the field to relieve stress and make more money. They are seeking different jobs or careers but sacrificing their passion.”

While providers have received some relief-3 in 5 providers who accept child care subsidy are making use of a recent state policy change that allows them to bill when children on subsidy are absent, and nearly 9 in 10 providers have received COVID-19 relief funding to support their program-the survey shows the incredible financial, physical, and mental stress that remains on providers, said Alexandra Daro, research specialist at the Buffett Institute and co-author of the report.

“Early childhood teachers have been showing up day in and day out to care for children despite all they have been through the last two years,” said Daro. “Their resilience is on full display, but responses indicate that many early childhood professionals have reached the breaking point and are leaving the early childhood field entirely.”

According to the report, COVID-related stress increases existing challenges in Nebraska’s child care system, including poor funding and compensation, high job stress, and policies that do not support business health. The average hourly wage for child care workers in Nebraska is $12.31.

To address the needs of Nebraska’s families and communities, the report indicates that child care providers need resources and policies to address the following:

“We have a statewide crisis in Nebraska,” said Gallagher. “Prior to the pandemic, 91 percent of counties with child care facilities already did not have enough available slots to meet the current demand. The pandemic has made working in the child care field even more difficult.”

The survey and accompanying report are an extension of the Buffett Institute’s efforts to implement the recommendations of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission. The commission’s 2020 report outlined an urgent need to prioritize the early childhood workforce in Nebraska for children, families, communities, and the state.