Despite Pandemic, Fellows Push On

Tara Williams: Protecting a Fragile Childcare System Now in Crisis

As Executive Director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children (MaineAEYC), Tara Williams has spent the last couple of years trying to strengthen and bring change to a childcare and early education system in Maine that doesn’t work optimally for families or providers. While quality childcare can be hard to find and too expensive for many Maine families, providers and educators often struggle financially.

The coronavirus has put this already fragile system into full-blown survival mode. Social distancing forced many providers to close their doors, resulting in weeks of lost income that threatens their ability to reopen. At the same time, the loss of providers has made it more difficult for essential workers to find care for their children.

Since March, Williams has worked on both fronts.

To help essential workers find childcare, MaineAEYC has worked with partners Maine Roads to Quality and Maine Department of Health and Human Services to identify providers who remained open. It also consulted with open businesses and institutions to assess the needs of their employees.

Whether a provider remained open or not, they were still concerned about a loss of revenue because of families deciding not to send their children or not being able to pay. “Providers operate on a very tight margin,” Williams said.

In response, MaineAEYC helped coordinate business relief webinars to help providers navigate the resources before them, including unemployment or the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The organization also signed on to letters to state and federal policy makers to advocate for assistance to the industry. More recently, it has consulted with the state on distributing $11 million in relief for childcare providers made available as part of the federal stimulus bills. The money will provide stipends and grants to licensed providers to help cover their revenue loss.

While the crisis has put some aspects of Williams’ long-term goals on the back burner, it has added urgency to others. In particular, it has bolstered the evidence to her case that Maine’s childcare system needs to be strengthened. “The last few weeks have definitely highlighted the systemic problems,” she said. “Policy and system change are more important than ever.”

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