The blog of the Urban Institute
March 12, 2020

Policies, Practices, and Resources for Child Care and Early Education Providers Amid the Coronavirus Crisis

March 12, 2020

This post was updated on 03/13/2020 to include new resources from national organizations for state policymakers.


As of mid-March 2020, a dozen states have declared a state of emergency amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. By declaring an emergency, states are positioned to take additional steps to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to protect residents’ health and welfare.

Many Americans are seeking evidence about best practices to inform their plans. For child care and early education providers, the federal government and many states already have plans developed in the aftermath of natural disasters in the past decade.

These evidence-based materials (listed at the bottom of this post) are valuable to leaders and adults seeking how to prepare for the COVID-19 virus.

Children are at a lower risk when compared with older adults, according to the latest evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet caregivers of young children, especially those with underlying health conditions and older adults, are at risk.

1. Focus on prevention

Leaders, administrators and providers should take a number of steps to prevent the spread of the virus in their communities. To cover costs incurred from preventative measures, state leaders can take advantage of the flexibility offered in federal child care subsidy law for child care and early education providers.

These funds can be used to cover the costs of hygiene materials, substitute teachers, and paid leave. These funds can also be used to pay for grants or no-interest loans to help programs stay afloat if they are closed.

As most the child care and early education workforce are paid hourly, staying home can mean a reduction in pay. Therefore, federal and state actions to ameliorate the impact of lost wages could play an important role. A number of national organizations have requested guidance from the federal Office of Child Care emphasizing what states can and should do to address problems child care and early education programs face as a result of the virus.

Immediate practical steps

  • Ensure soap and hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol are available for all staff, teachers, and children.
  • Adults and children should wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Although adults should encourage young children to practice handwashing, young children are still learning this practice, so adults should regularly wash their own hands and use hand sanitizer.
  • Routinely clean and disinfect child care facilities. Frequently touched objects and surfaces should be cleaned with a disinfectant daily.
  • Require people to stay home when sick, both adults and children. State policymakers should consider policies that encourage sick adults to stay home. Some states are exploring using child care subsidies for parent copays or expanding unemployment.

2. Seek to reduce stress

As in any crisis, adults and children are more likely to be worried, stress, or agitated. Taking steps to address this stress is important, as stress is known to increase the likelihood of infection.

While preventing the spread of the virus may call for isolation, caring for young children requires adult attention and interaction. Urban research reveals that adults who attempt to work while caring for children experience stress, so preventing and mitigating stress is important.

Immediate practical steps

  • Communicate clearly. For very young children, adults must use concrete explanations about what is happening. Abstract language and metaphors can confuse young children.
  • For preschool-aged children, adults should provide more information without using language that could make children anxious. Providing information about what steps adults are taking is a good way to start.
  • Low-income parents should seek community resources to address crisis-related stress. Low-income mothers with public or private health insurance are significantly more likely to receive treatment than those without insurance.

3. Support children’s growth and development while programs are closed

Several states have issued states of emergency and have encouraged employees to work from home. Many private employers are also encouraging workers to work from home.

In some localities, child care and early education programs are closing. As adults with young children are juggling caregiving with work responsibilities, many are seeking guidance on how to best care for children.

Immediate practical steps

  • Set parameters around remote work. Adults working from home should allocate specific time for work when children are sleeping or being cared for by other adults. Many adults feel they can’t set parameters around their schedules, even in the face of emergencies. Yet being proactive in arranging work and parenting responsibilities can lead to greater productivity and reduced stress.
  • Avoid excess screen time. Although it can be tempting to use television and tablets to keep young children occupied, minimizing screen time is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians to support young children’s growth and development.
  • Seek guidance. Preschool e-learning guides can be useful for adults seeking guidance on how to best support young children’s growth and development. However, the largest early childhood association recommends against “online preschool,” as it does not support children’s growth and development.

Federal and national resources

Many state and community leaders are seeking research-based approaches to refine existing plans or develop new approaches to address to help child care and early education providers.

  • The CDC has developed resources for K-12 schools and child care centers to plan, prepare, and respond to the coronavirus. These resources include guidance for parents, school staff, and others working with children about how to talk with children about the virus.
  • The US Department of Health and Human Services has curated resources specifically for child care, Head Start, and preschool programs. These resources focus on the specific needs of young children. Some materials are designed specifically for Head Start or child care programs. Other resources provide families with information about how to help their children in the days and weeks during and after a crisis.
  • A new Child Trends and EMT Associates, Inc. resource provides the text in each state’s statutes and regulations on how schools or school districts should respond to a disease outbreak. This tool can help educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders understand how schools in their state may respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Child Care Aware has developed guidance to child care programs and provides links to materials from the American Academy of Pediatricians as well as others.

State resources

Many states have developed specific plans to address emergencies that include guidance for administrators, teachers, and families. These resources vary widely, as they account for the range of existing health and safety regulations.

  • According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), several states have introduced legislation to provide supplemental appropriations to fiscal year 2020 budgets. Although this legislation does not yet specifically address child care and early education, as more state legislatures take action, updated information will be available on the NSCL website.
  • Resources from national organizations for state policymakers are available through the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) and the National Governors Association (NGA). NIEER has developed a curated list Resources for Early Childhood Policymakers on Preventing and Preparing for Novel Coronavirus.  NGA provides numerous resources including state policies related to education and child care. Both of these websites are being updated regularly.
  • Many states, including California and Illinois (PDF) to Oregon and Texas (PDF), have developed plans to address crises and emergencies. These plans include guidance for state stakeholders, administrators, teachers, and parents. A review of these plans reveals that each accounts for unique state context.
  • Some communities are developing specific checklists and guidance. For example, two affected counties, King County (PDF), which encompasses Seattle, Washington, and Rockland County in New York, have developed materials to address infection. The King County materials provide a preparedness checklist. In contrast, the Rockland County materials provide useful tips for child care providers and the public.

Photo by bernardbodo/Getty Images.

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