Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has brought historic attention to early childhood education across our state, making broad steps toward the professionalization of the field. We laud the formation of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department and her successful efforts to expand early childhood funding in New Mexico.
These steps represent essential progress toward better treatment of our youngest citizens. Yet, where is that same commitment to child care workers and their families at this critical moment?
The Governor’s Office, New Mexico Public Education Department and state Department of Health announced the three-week closure of K-12 public schools (“Classes, church services suspended: State closing public schools for 3 weeks as Santa Fe archbishop urges faithful to ‘pray at home,’ ” March 13). However, state-funded child care and the workers who serve these children, many of whom are uninsured and poorly compensated, are not covered under this “proactive measure to limit the potential community spread of COVID-19.”
Is it coincidental that Lujan Grisham is asking early childhood educators — nonunion hourly workers, 70 percent of whom live below the poverty line — and not K-12 educators — unionized, salaried, with benefits — to reach into their hearts and find their “community spirit?” If child care workers were organized like public school educators, would we be facing this dilemma?
Suggesting public child care centers remain open while public schools close is disheartening. Not only does it put low-income care workers and their families at increased risk; it undermines the governor’s stated intention to encourage social distancing. We are disappointed that state-funded child care workers do not deserve the same precautions afforded other educators.
On March 13, Elizabeth Groginsky, first secretary of the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, held a phone call with over 200 early child care providers throughout the state. Gorginsky comes to New Mexico with extensive experience, earning widespread support from the early childhood education community.
During the call, Groginsky and colleagues told participants that child care centers are exempt from the ban on large-group gatherings. She implored centers to remain open to serve their communities, citing “what an essential service this is for families.”
We agree: Child care is essential; early educators are important. If we are so important and essential, however, why didn’t Department of Health officials, who stated they had been working on the crisis for weeks, outline specific measures to support workers in state-funded centers with hazard pay or child care for our own K-12 children? Why are pre-K programs within public schools closing, while pre-K programs outside of public schools remain open? Why will centers only be closed after a confirmed case when it’s well documented tests are in short supply and slow to be processed?
While we understand the underlying complexities the Governor’s Office and Department of Health are grappling with — financially precarious homes, food insecurity, child care for first responders — keeping publicly funded child cares open (and potentially increasing their populations) is reckless. By “strongly encouraging” centers to stay open, we are not helping families — we are facilitating widespread infection, putting the elderly, immunosuppressed and otherwise vulnerable at increased risk.
We ask the Governor’s Office to rectify this injustice. Support providers with more than platitudes. Offer hazard pay directly to child care workers serving households of “first responders.” Close all remaining child care centers. Public school teachers are receiving pay while on leave; ensure child care workers are similarly compensated.
The Governor’s Office has made huge strides on behalf of early childhood education. Don’t set us back by asking us to take one for the team, when we’ve only just now been invited onto the roster.