By Anne Blythe

When Carmen Morrison closed the doors of Marizetta Kerry Child Development Center for nearly a month a year ago, the executive director of the Charlotte facility had no idea how much COVID-19 would alter the lifestyles of her staff, the children they care for and their families.

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with back then,” Morrison said in a recent telephone interview.

Morrison and her staff spent that downtime during the early lockdown in 2020 figuring out how to reopen a business that was so essential to the children whose parents and caregivers could not work from home.

There would be no more shared Play-Doh and arts and crafts. Each child would be given their own bucket with supplies inside after temperature checks at the door. Staff wore gloves and two face masks. There was rigorous hand-washing and other safety measures.

“Everybody was nervous,” Morrison said, noting that 50 to 60 of the 170 children enrolled before the pandemic returned to the center.

Most of the 27 employees came back, too, Morrison said. The bonuses and state subsidies helped, but nonetheless, the five star-rated center has taken a financial hit.

As COVID-19 vaccines provide hope of getting to the other side of the pandemic, Morrison and other child care center operators are looking to the federal and state government to help them stabilize their businesses and provide quality care as more parents go back to work.

North Carolina lawmakers put forward a proposal on April 7, Senate Bill 570, that has been touted as a measure designed to help the child care industry get back on its feet.

But parts of the bill that would drastically change how child care centers are rated trouble Morrison and others in early childhood education.

Lowering education standards

Senate Bill 570, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Kernersville), Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Angier), and Sen. Jim Perry (R-Kinston), has three sections related to the Environmental Rating Scale, or star rating system, that has been in place for more than 20 years.

In 2000, the North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education moved to a star-rated licensing system that evaluated centers on staff education levels, program standards and compliance levels.

The system was changed in 2005 to include only education levels and program standards. The state Department of Health and Human Services assesses compliance every six months, and each facility must maintain a grade of at least 75 percent to remain open.

The bill proposed this month would lower the standards of post-high school education that a center’s staff must have in order to receive the top-tier five-star rating but does not alter how program standards are rated in the star system.

Star rating license sample, courtesy NC DHHS

As it is now, 75 percent of the lead teachers in a program must be working toward an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in childhood education for the program to earn enough points to get that coveted five-star rating.

Senate Bill 570 would lower that measure to 50 percent of the lead teachers, a change that child advocates say could weaken North Carolina’s child care system.

“It undermines parents’ ability to make an informed decision,” Muffy Grant, executive director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation, said in a recent telephone interview. “A center could be a two-star today and become a five-star if this passes.”

‘It ignores the science’

The bill proposed keeps the lowered threshold in place until 2027. It also postpones any environmental review assessments for up to six months after Gov. Roy Cooper declares North Carolina no longer is in a state of emergency related to COVID-19.

The six-month postponement largely has been accepted as a sensible measure to pursue after the pandemic showed the frailty of a child care industry that operates on thin margins.

Many centers shuttered. Some that didn’t close had to cut staff because they lost income from parents who themselves might have lost jobs and no longer could afford day care or who kept their children home for other reasons.

“Hopefully as this time moves forward, we can rebuild the workforce again, gird up more workers in this field,” Morrison said.

When that happens, though, Morrison says it’s important to maintain an educated staff because of the little minds they are helping to shape at such a crucial point of a young child’s life.

“Why are we doing this?” Morrison said. “To educate. When we have that mindset it’s important to learn what we can about early childhood education.”

Grant, of the NC Early Childhood Foundation, echoed that thought.

“The negative ramifications of this bill is really that it ignores the science,” Grant said. “Children need teachers skilled in healthy development.”

The General Assembly in 2012 recognized that connection and tied state subsidies to the star rating system, saying that state funding should go to facilities that had at least three stars.

‘We’re seeing classrooms closed’

Sherry Melton, a lobbyist for the N.C. Licensed Child Care Association, has advocated for the changes proposed in SB 570.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Melton explained why her client thinks some of the changes are warranted but noted that there is flexibility on certain timelines and on any unintended consequences of the legislation as currently written.

The question she has for parents and others worried about lowering the percentage of lead teachers who must have an associate degree or higher to get five stars is this: Is it better to have child care teachers with degrees or keep classrooms open at centers that are having a difficult time recruiting such educators to their classrooms?

Melton said the child care industry was in crisis before the pandemic but is in a more dire situation now as centers try to rebuild the workforce.

“While we’re so desperate to protect those star ratings, we’re seeing classrooms closed,” Melton said.

Lauren Hayworth, chief operating officer for A Child’s World Learning Center, which has two five-star centers and two four-star centers in Forsyth and Davie counties, has been able to stay open throughout the pandemic.

“In the beginning, I thought we were going to have to close,” Hayworth said Tuesday during a telephone interview.

That didn’t happen, though. Occasionally, a center had to close a classroom after a staff member or, in some rare cases, a child tested positive for COVID-19.

Though the number of children in their care dropped in the early months of the pandemic, in April they brought back 500 of the 600 students for which the centers have capacity.

Before the pandemic, A Child’s World Learning Center had about 110 staff members.

“We have 75 staff members now,” Hayworth said. “The main problem I’m having right now is the good quality staff I have now, the stress is starting to wear on them.”

Higher pay elsewhere

In her search to bring more people on board, Hayworth has trouble persuading applicants with associate degrees to take a job for the $10 to $13 an hour that the centers can pay.

“When I get people in, who have a degree, they want $16 to $17 an hour,” Hayworth said.

Hayworth said Senate Bill 570 could provide centers time to rebuild their workforces without being penalized in the star rating system if 75 percent of the lead teachers don’t have at least an associate’s degree.

Though Hayworth understands the concerns about whether the quality of care would be eroded if the star rating system is changed, she contends that her centers with four stars provide the same quality of care as those with five stars. The only difference between them, she said, is that two of the centers have more team leaders with degrees.

“At this time, I’m looking for people with good hearts,” Hayworth said.

‘A poison pill’

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, tried to pull back the curtain on the genesis of the bill during a Senate committee meeting earlier this month but couldn’t satisfy his curiosity.

Efforts to reach Krawiec, a sponsor of the bill, by email and telephone were unsuccessful.

“We understand these are extraordinary times,” Woodard said. “This way this bill is written, it’s a really bad piece of legislation.”

Woodard said he’s OK with the section of the bill that delays the environmental review assessment for a short time period after the state of emergency is lifted. But the part of the bill that would lower the education requirement for early childhood educators was unacceptable.

“That’s a poison pill,” Woodard said.

Melton, the lobbyist who advocated for the legislation, said that section is designed to give people interested in joining the child care workforce time to get degrees.

“The six years came from trying to give somebody new to the field time to get to that point,” Melton said. “If an early childhood educator can only take a course a semester, then it’s going to take them about six years to get an associate’s degree.”

Others questioned whether the motive is to phase out the star rating system.

‘The problem comes back to compensation’

It’s no secret that many centers are having difficulty attracting workers whose pay is not always commensurate to the importance of the job they are being asked to do.

They point out that McDonald’s and some of the big box retail chains pay $15 an hour, putting many day care providers in an untenable position.

Instead of lowering the education standards for providers, early childhood advocates suggest investing more in the workforce.

“We want to professionalize the workforce,” Grant said.

Michele Rivest, senior campaign director for the North Carolina Early Education Coalition, described SB 570 as a conversation starter that attempts to address the workforce crisis but does not do what it should to get at the heart of the issue.

“In the end, the problem comes back to compensation,” Rivest said Monday during a telephone interview. “We know that 40 percent of all our educators before the pandemic were living in poverty.”

In 20 counties, the average pay for early childhood educators was barely $10 an hour. In some counties, it’s $11 or $12 per hour, according to Rivest.

Rivest would like to see the conversation about rebuilding the child care industry to shift to how to use federal and state funds to supplement the early childhood education programs that more than 60 percent of North Carolina families rely on to care for their little ones while they’re at work.

Instead of changing the five-star rating system to lower the percentage of lead teachers that need to have a post high school degree for the top rating, Rivest would like to see legislators and others tackle how to invest more in the child care workforce without making tuition and fees even more exorbitant for parents.

“What I think is really the opportunity in this bill is now legislators realize that there is a workforce crisis,” Rivest said. “If we just reverse course and say all of what we’ve done for the last 20 years in North Carolina doesn’t matter, then shame on us.”

Child care providers and advocates would like to see some of the $1.3 billion coming to North Carolina from the American Rescue Plan used to address the compensation problem. The White House announced on April 15, while releasing $39 billion in funds, that states should use the allocations to “address the child care crisis created by COVID-19.

“We definitely think this $1.3 billion coming from Congress will help,” Rivest said. “We are going to face this big crisis where there’s not enough child care for working families. We need to build it back. That’s what this federal money is for, it’s to allow us to do that.”

Melton wouldn’t argue against using the federal aid to help child care centers get back on their feet, but she pointed out that it’s not an unlimited supply of funds.

“What happens at the end of three years?” Melton asked.

Despite their differences, Melton said she hoped the many organizations interested in the child care industry and early childhood education could come together to create something that addresses common problems.

“I hope we can all work together,” Melton said.

Hayworth, the chief operating officer for A Child’s World Learning, echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t want everyone in this industry to be on opposite sides of the fence, because we all need to work together,” Hayworth said.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.