Over the course of her 12-year career, child care provider Kyra Swenson has caught pneumonia three times. The 35-year-old teacher who, until earlier this year, watched over seven one-year-olds in the burnt orange walled Chipmunk Room at Woods Hollow Children’s Center, is also asthmatic.
The child care center sent Swenson, her colleagues, and the children home from the pre-kindergarten program as the coronavirus surged in their community outside of Madison, Wisconsin, in mid-March. That day, as she left her classroom, she knew it would be for the last time.
Swenson’s asthma is a condition the Center for Disease Control has deemed potentially high-risk for complications from COVID-19. She can’t take the chance of catching pneumonia – which can permanently damage the lungs – a fourth time, much less during a pandemic. For now, her family will have to survive on the salary of her husband, a data analyst, she says.
When she was asked to return to in-class instruction in mid-July, Swenson quit. The center’s management, struggling financially, does not pay for, provide, or even mandate wearing masks for employees. Swenson didn’t think she could ask her colleagues to buy masks and protective gear for themselves who, like her, made less than $20,000 a year.
“It was a heartbreaking choice,” says Swenson. “I had many tearful nights.”
COVID-19 cases rise
Cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise in child care centers across the country, leaving vulnerable providers at risk. In California, there have been at least 33,308 documented cases of the coronavirus in child care centers, according to the state’s Department of Social Services. In Texas, 52 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in centers on July 28 alone, with 2,810 cases reported overall, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said.
Child care workers say that unlike K-12 teachers and parents, they are being erased from conversations around the safety of reopening the economy. Early education teachers with pre-existing health conditions instead face an impossible choice, similar to thousands of other essential workers, as states mandate phased re-openings in an effort to spur the economy.
Swenson made her decision after weighing the risk of infection and life-threatening complications compared to trying to maintain her livelihood and the job she loved during a global recession.
It could cost up to $9.6 billion a month to keep child care facilities in the United States safe and solvent throughout the pandemic, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) estimates. Congress has so far allotted $3.5 billion to help support child care providers in the United States. On Wednesday, the House passed the Child Care is Essential Act, which would give $50 billion in aid to the industry, but the Senate is not expected to pass the bill.
“It’s been the same problem that we’ve had for decades,” says Shana Bartley, an expert on child care and income insecurity at the NWLC, “which is a complete lack of serious and strategic investment in this sector, and undervaluing of the workforce.”
93 percent of childcare workers are women
Approximately 93 percent of child care workers are women, according to the NWLC. On average, they make $11.60 an hour, or an estimated $24,300 a year. Roughly 85 percent of child care workers lack health insurance through their employers, according to a 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute.
Enola Garland, a 30-year-old early education teacher in Colorado, has chosen to continue working through the pandemic despite living with asthma and having previously caught pneumonia at work, just as Swenson did. But unlike Swenson, Garland doesn’t have a partner’s income or savings to fall back on, and while she loves her job, she wishes she could financially afford to take leave until the pandemic settles.
“I don’t want to die,” says Garland. “I don’t think any job is worth dying for.”
Fifty-one-year-old Sharon Burrier shares the same concerns. She says the daycare she ran out of her home in Thurmont, Maryland, did well before coronavirus hit. But Burrier also has asthma, and concerns for her health pushed her to close in the middle of March. Now Burrier, who has spent almost two decades of her life running a successful home business, has had to re-enter a job market in search of other employment.
“I’m trying to get a job, but they say I have no work history,” she says. “They look at me like I have two heads.”
Without new work, and with her $600 unemployment bonus included in the CARES Act expiring today, Burrier says she doesn’t know how she’ll make it financially.
“We need help right now,” says Swenson. “Because it’s not just about us, you’re going to damage a generation of young children who are going to fall behind without us.”