Federal COVID aid could be ‘game changer’ for hard hit Georgia pre-K

By: - April 20, 2021 3:46 am

Daycare owner Shenette Zachary helps students get connected during online learning. Zachary is hoping federal funds will help her pay staff as enrollment levels continue to recover from the pandemic. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

With Georgia’s unemployment rate inching back toward historic norms, more parents are calling on day care owner Shenette Zachary, and the playground outside Kennesaw’s Star Light Learning Academy is echoing again with the sounds of children at play.

“Parents are definitely starting to go back to work and we’re filling up pretty good,” Zachary said as children laughed and shouted behind her Monday morning.

Star Light, like businesses across the state, saw demand plummet last spring as the state went into COVID-19 lockdown. Zachary soon reopened her doors to care for the children of essential workers, and when public schools reopened, she expanded to offer supervised classrooms for kids doing their coursework digitally.

Zachary said she considers herself blessed to be able to keep serving her community. Nationwide, one in four child care providers open at the start of the pandemic were still closed at the end of 2020, according to the White House.

Still, business at Star Light has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and the center is spending more on cleaning supplies and PPE, leading to a tighter budget.

“I don’t have enough money to fix up the place, like the floors need to be done,” she said. “Every dime that I make, it goes to payroll. Everything that I bring in is literally going out on payroll, and I’ve got four people that I’m paying as 1099 (independent contractors), but I need to get them on the table, and once I put them on payroll, my payroll is going to go up.”

The same thing is happening across Georgia, said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.

“Child care providers are definitely some of the heroes of our story,” she said. “They have worked really hard to stay open and serve kids in the midst of a pandemic, especially at the very beginning of the pandemic.”

Child care workers were vital for allowing other essential workers to stay on the job, but with more Georgia parents working from home, jobless or working fewer hours, demand has not yet returned. Some child care facilities report enrollment at 75% or lower, Binderman said.

A provision of the American Rescue Plan is aimed at helping day care owners like Zachary keep their doors open and their staff paid with about $39 billion nationwide in new funding.

Georgia’s allotment is just over $1.5 billion, with about $604 million to be sent to providers for reopening or staying open, payroll, health and safety expenses and mental health support for educators and children. Another $968 million is earmarked for the state government, to be spent on increasing affordability and accessibility of day care and increasing wages for child care workers.

As of last month, the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning has distributed more than $92 million of federal CARES Act funding to early education centers around the state in two rounds of grants, with applications complete for a third round.

The state is seeking guidance from the federal government and working to determine how to distribute the latest funds, but the money could make a big difference for Georgia’s youngest learners.

“It’s a game changer if you use it as the foundation of a plan to move forward as well as addressing the immediate needs, which we do not want to underestimate,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-​director of National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIERR, at Rutgers University. “Kids and families have been hit hard.”

On Monday, NIERR released its 2021 “State of Preschool Yearbook,” an annual report card on state-run early learning programs. The data focuses on the 2019-2020 school year and includes data collected before and after the pandemic’s arrival.

Across the country, pre-K enrollment has dropped 25% across public and private schools.

“What will happen to the kids who missed pre-K?,” Barnett said. “We need to address the learning loss and trauma due to the pandemic, and we have to start now.”

About 80,000 children are enrolled in Georgia’s state-funded pre-K program, representing 59% of the state’s 4-year-olds. Georgia ranked No. 8 among the states for pre-K access for 4-year-olds, but it ranks 33rd in the country for spending on each student. When only state spending is counted, Georgia ranks 24th.

In the last school year, Georgia spent $4,694 on each pre-K student, up $221 from the year before. Other states spent an average of $6,329, according to the institute. Georgia meets eight of the institute’s ten benchmarks for quality, falling short in class size and staff to child ratio. The institute recommends a maximum class size of 20 children and a ratio of one adult to every 10 children. Georgia’s maximum class size is 22 children, and the state has a staff-to-child ratio of one to 11.

“Georgia, after the Great Recession, increased their class sizes and still hasn’t quite rebounded from that, so we’d like to see lower, smaller class sizes,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, assistant research professor at NIERR.

“The state has been committed to supporting teachers and slowly providing them with salary increases, so I think that’s one way they are also improving their quality, by supporting their teachers, which is definitely important,” she added.

In the 2019-2020 school year, all Georgia pre-K teachers in Georgia got a $3,000 raise, and all assistant teachers received a 2% salary increase. During the current school year, state lawmakers added $2,000 per pre-K teacher to the budget, along with 5% increases for assistant teachers.  

Zachary said Star Light is the only child care facility in the area that stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so many of the parents who send their children there would not be able to work the jobs they do without the center. She’s hoping the federal dollars will help keep all of them on the job.

“On the weekends, I have doctors, lawyers, nurses, a lot of people that work at the hospitals,” she said. “I’m getting more calls from essential workers. My biggest thing is just to help me to be able to stay open and to get more income for the staff, to be able to pay staff and create more jobs to help the essential workers.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.