When schools, restaurants, bars and offices across the country closed last spring amid the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, Jennifer Washburn’s day care center in western Kentucky stayed open.
Washburn and her 25 employees teamed up with a local hospital in March to provide care for the children of doctors, nurses and other staff. With closed school buildings, this meant not only taking care of babies and toddlers, but also helping older children with their virtual school.
Schools in Kentucky reopened in August but closed in the fall – and again Washburn’s center was there to help kids log into their online classes and supervise them during the school day while their parents worked. “We were open from the start and looked after children,” Washburn told Vox.
But now teachers in Kentucky are being vaccinated, and unlucky childcare workers like Washburn and their staff are. The state is one of at least five that have not prioritized childcare workers alongside K-12 teachers when introducing vaccines, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended they do.
Washburn even called her local vaccination center to see if she could be put on a waiting list for the next stage of the rollout, but was told it was too early. “We’re just waiting here with nothing, and yet we were with the actual children the whole time,” she said.
Across the country, childcare workers like Washburn and her team have worked personally throughout the pandemic, looking after children even when schools are closed. In many cases, however, the introduction of the vaccine leaves them behind. Even in states like California, where childcare workers take precedence over teachers, a chaotic process has resulted in many still not getting the shot. And proponents fear that a combination of long hours, complex registration processes, and a lack of reach in languages other than English will mean that childcare workers – who are disproportionately composed of women of skin color and immigrants – will themselves have difficulty gaining access to vaccines if they are technically eligible to get them.
Childcare workers “don’t have time to wait four hours in a ballpark,” Alexa Frankenberg, executive director of Child Care Providers United, California, told Vox. “There has to be a strategy that really recognizes who these workers are, what their work is like, and meets them where they are.”
Some states do not prioritize childcare workers when introducing vaccines
When Covid-19 spread across the country last spring, many daycare centers next to the K-12 schools closed their doors – around half were completely closed, according to an April survey. But the other half remained open, at 17 percent, like Washburn’s center, which specifically serves the children of key workers. And as spring turned into summer and fall, more and more centers were reopening, and some were taking in school-age children whose classes were out of the way. In many places such as Washington, DC and Los Angeles, daycare centers are open while public schools remain closed.
All of this means childcare workers have been at the forefront of the pandemic from the start. And while experts believe the risk of Covid transmission is lower in day-care centers than in other facilities like restaurants or bars, according to a study, some childcare workers have gotten sick, with Black, Latin American and Native American workers being the most at risk (although it’s not clear was whether they caught the virus while working).
Meanwhile, the sheer spread of the virus in the community, especially in hard-hit areas like California, has forced many vendors to repeatedly close in recent months because a child or parent tested positive. “We hear from providers who close twice a month for engagements,” said Frankenberg.
However, this frontline status has not resulted in access to vaccines for many childcare workers across the country. In addition to Kentucky, at least four states – Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming – have placed childcare workers lower than teachers, according to EdSurge. Some other states, like Florida, haven’t given priority to teachers or childcare workers, and in some places a chaotic rollout has resulted in even those in priority groups not being sure when they’ll get the vaccine.
While Kentucky is currently vaccinating teachers as part of Tier 1b in the state, childcare workers will have to wait for 1c – along with all high-risk over 60s, adults and older teenagers and all key workers. That’s roughly 1.4 million people, according to Bradley Stevenson, executive director of Kentucky’s Child Care Council.
The lack of priority is particularly worrying because childcare workers earn low wages – less than $ 11 an hour on average across the country – and often do not receive paid vacation or health benefits. “This vaccine is your health insurance right now,” Stevenson told Vox.
Priority is not always a guarantee of access
In the meantime, just being placed in a priority group wasn’t necessarily enough for child carers to actually receive the vaccine. In California, they are part of phase 1b of the rollout along with K-12 teachers. But with Californians 65 and older also part of 1b and a confusing county-by-county system for rollout, a lot of childcare workers are left behind.
In Los Angeles County, for example, childcare workers had heard they could be vaccinated in early February, Mayra Escobar, who runs a daycare in the San Fernando Valley, told Vox. But now it’s mid-February with no gunshots in sight. Escobar was only able to get her first dose of vaccine because she also works as a pediatric nurse. But other providers she knows ask: “When is it our turn?”
Across the country, the urge to prioritize seniors for the vaccine has raised access concerns for key workers, especially as many older people are retired and have time to navigate a variety of websites and hotlines while many employees are on the front lines don’t do this. This is especially true for child carers, who often work 12 to 14 hours with few breaks.
Besides time to make an appointment and get the vaccine, there are other hurdles. Although the vaccine is free, some workers are told they may have to pay an office visit or other fees that are particularly prohibitive for low-wage workers, Frankenberg said. There are also documentation concerns – while some daycare owners may be able to show a business license if they are required to provide evidence of where they work, employees may not have documentation to prove they work in childcare. And the confusing, piecemeal nature of the vaccine rollout in California (and elsewhere) means it’s often not clear what, if any, documents people need to produce in order to get a chance.
Range is also an issue. Just like people in other professions, child carers have a range of attitudes about the vaccine, from being eager to worrying about side effects. In conversations with coworkers and others, Washburn said she hadn’t heard from anyone who was strongly against the vaccine. “But I have some people who are still curious and still watching and still trying to make decisions,” she said.
And some may lack the information to make those decisions. For example, educational materials or information about vaccine safety and side effects may not always be available in languages that childcare workers can best read and speak. During this pandemic, “even in a state as diverse as California, too much information is only available in English,” Frankenberg said.
Furthermore, simply putting vaccine information on a website is not enough to make sure childcare workers see it. Older people in particular may need a different form of contact if they’re not as tech-savvy, Escobar said. And in their experience, older providers were the most reluctant to find the vaccine. This includes her mother, who also works in childcare and is still standing by the fence – she fears that the vaccine was developed too quickly. “Throwing in facts about the vaccine development process” didn’t work, Escobar said. Now she’s trying a more personal approach: “I’ll get the shot for you today, and you can get it for me tomorrow.” ”
But not every provider has a family member who is a nurse to guide them through the process. Overall, authorities need to communicate about the vaccine “in languages that people speak, from messengers they trust, and in the way that they consume information,” said Frankenberg.
Workers need vaccines to get them where they are
Across the country, childcare workers and their advocates are pushing for change. In Kentucky, they hope that childcare workers will have priority within Level 1c so that they can be vaccinated once the state is through with K-12 teachers. Washburn also wishes to see efforts to vaccinate daycare in or near the centers, much like the Kentucky authorities have done with nursing homes.
And extended hours would help vendors who work long shifts meet deadlines, Escobar said. For example, their center is open 24/7 to look after the children of key workers. So it is very difficult to take time off. “Right now there is no 9-to-5.”
Whether it’s mobile vaccination units, longer working hours or some other strategy, Frankenberg agrees: “We want to ensure that our providers who are with these children in person every day are given priority access in a way that is simple and straightforward is to be navigated. “
Childcare workers recognize that vaccine priority is a complex issue because the supply is limited and many groups of Americans are at high risk. Washburn, for example, is happy that Kentucky vaccinates people over 70. “I’m so glad to be bringing my in-laws to this pool,” she said. “That makes me excited.”
But they, and their proponents, argue that in the rush to vaccinate millions of Americans as quickly as possible, those who care for the nation’s youngest children have sometimes been forgotten.
“You should be right at the front,” said Frankenberg, “not pushed further and further back.”