What Will Happen to Jewish Preschool and the Teachers our Children Love?

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By Arielle Levites

When my youngest child started preschool she cried all day long. Erika, a veteran teacher, held her for hours and comforted her. After two long days my little one (now a great big four-year old) was ready to look around, make friends and explore her environment. Now she asks me every day when she can go back to preschool.

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others argued for a 50 billion dollar relief fund for the early childhood industry. Ultimately the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act included only $3.5 billion for early care and education, although it includes provisions for small businesses that can help child care centers stay afloat.

Like almost all Jewish educators, Jewish early childhood educators have worked with tremendous speed, diligence, and focus to master new technologies and pivot during this crisis. Yet unlike other educational programs – such as day school and part-time Jewish education – it is almost impossible for early childhood programs to provide online learning that approximates the care and activities for learning that happen in person, particularly given the close supervision small children need. As a result, it is very difficult for a preschool to make the argument to parents that it can still charge tuition.

High quality early care is an expensive proposition. An elementary school classroom can function with one teacher for more than twenty-five children. But infants, toddlers, and preschoolers require a much smaller ratio to provide adequate care. In the United States, most families pay privately for early care and education. Day care and early childhood tuition is often a sizable portion of a family’s budget and paid month to month. Many families rely on these programs to provide childcare during working hours. When forced to simultaneously work from home and provide care for their small children – as many are parents are doing now – they understandably may not want continue to pay tuition (although some continue to do so). And given the financial fallout from the current crisis, many parents may not have the means to pay tuition even if they wanted to.

Generally speaking, the U.S.’s financial response to COVID-19-related business closures, unlike other countries, is a relief package at the individual level. This response encourages layoffs and unemployment, as opposed to incentivizing keeping small businesses running. Daycares and preschools, which often operate with very little reserve, thus may layoff or furlough teachers rather than continue to keep them on the payroll. Many will not reopen without support.

CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), as part of an ongoing study funded by the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, is currently collecting systematic data on Jewish educators across all sectors, including information on salaries and benefits. Preliminary analysis shows that early childhood educators make lower salaries overall than other full-time Jewish educators (as is also true in general education). And it’s worth noting that recent CASJE research in Jewish early childhood education (ECE) shows that, in some cases, early childhood programs that are profitable often feed those profits back into the larger institutions that house the preschool (e.g. the synagogue) rather than into educator salaries. So while preschools can be important “feeders” into the organized Jewish community, the teachers themselves are often under-compensated. Will early childhood educators who collect unemployment be able to cover their expenses? How will they retain their health benefits in a health crisis? What about the injury to morale that comes with unemployment and to their sense of trust in the Jewish community? Will our preschool teachers want to return when programs can reopen?

One leader in the field of Jewish early childhood education shared her long-term fears for the field with me:

Jewish early childhood already has difficulty attracting teachers to this field. If being an early childhood teacher is no longer seen as a secure job will the teachers come back? Programs may be able to reopen in two months, four months, but will the teachers have moved on? Can a program reasonably begin from scratch and onboard a whole new staff and accommodate the same number of children?

The benefits of early care and early education are well-documented in the general education literature (so well-documented that it should be a right for every child in the U.S. to have access to high-quality early education). Specifically for the Jewish community, a forthcoming CASJE study funded by Crown Family Philanthropies (to be released in Spring 2020) examines how Jewish ECE can be a lever for family engagement. But before you can educate and engage, you have to be open and you have to have a trained cadre of professional educator offering high quality care.

Early childhood education is classed in the United States as a caring profession. The expertise and skills of early childhood educators are often undervalued, as is the hard work that caring takes. In this crisis, which sees strong advocacy for airlines and restaurants and any number of businesses that will be hard hit, few have spoken up for the preschool teacher.

Certainly, parents across the country who now are struggling with working from home productively while caring for their small children (including me!) no doubt appreciate the value of child care and knowing their children are in a safe, caring and developmentally appropriate setting. If anything, this crisis proves how essential early care is to working families of all backgrounds. But as a country, again and again we give short shrift to early childhood education. What will happen when the crisis passes and many day cares and preschools are out of business? How quickly will they be able to rehire and open their doors? Where will working parents send their children the day after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted?

Finally, while communities weigh the financial risk of keeping preschool educators on payroll, there are also risks in layoffs and closings and to our shared values. What will we say to the educators who have dedicated their lives to Jewish ECE? What will we say to the many families who love and rely on these institutions, which can be their main connections to Jewish life? I don’t have simple answers to these admittedly complex challenges. But we owe it to ourselves – and to young families and children – to demonstrably value these educators and institutions, and to understand what we have to do to safeguard them.

Dr. Arielle Levites is Managing Director of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) at George Washington University.