When schools, restaurants, bars, and offices around the country shut down last spring in the midst of the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, Jennifer Washburn’s day care center in western Kentucky stayed open.
Washburn and her staff of 25 partnered in March with a local hospital to provide care for the children of doctors, nurses, and other staff. With school buildings closed, that meant not just caring for babies and toddlers but also helping older children with their virtual school.
Kentucky schools reopened in August but shut down in the fall — and, again, Washburn’s center was there to help kids log in to their online classes and supervise them during the school day while their parents worked. “We’ve been open and caring for children since the beginning,” Washburn told Vox.
But now teachers in Kentucky are getting vaccinated, and child care providers like Washburn and her staff are out of luck. The state is one of at least five that haven’t prioritized child care workers alongside K-12 teachers in the vaccine rollout, despite a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do so.
Washburn even called her local vaccination site to see if she could get on a waiting list for the next tier of the rollout but was told it was too soon. “Here we are, just waiting with nothing, and yet we’ve been with the actual children this whole time,” she said.
Around the country, child care providers like Washburn and her team have been working in-person throughout the pandemic, caring for kids even when schools are closed. But in many cases, the vaccine rollout is leaving them behind. Even in states where child care workers have been prioritized alongside teachers, like California, a chaotic process has meant many have yet to receive the shot. And advocates fear that a combination of long work hours, complex sign-up processes, and lack of sufficient outreach in languages other than English will mean that the child care workforce — disproportionately composed of women of color and immigrants — will struggle to access vaccines even when they’re technically eligible to get them.
Child care workers “don’t have time to go wait four hours at a baseball stadium,” Alexa Frankenberg, executive director of the California union Child Care Providers United, told Vox. “There has to be a strategy that really acknowledges who these workers are, what their work looks like, and meets them where they are.”
Some states aren’t prioritizing child care workers in the vaccine rollout
When Covid-19 began spreading around the country last spring, many child care centers shut their doors alongside K-12 schools — about half closed down completely, according to one April survey. But the other half stayed open, with 17 percent, like Washburn’s center, specifically serving the children of essential workers. And as spring turned to summer and fall, more and more centers reopened, with some taking on school-age children whose classes were remote. In many places, such as Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, day care centers are open while public schools remain closed.
All this is to say that child care workers have been on the front lines of the pandemic since the very beginning. And while experts believe the risk of Covid-19 transmission in child care centers is lower than in other settings, like restaurants or bars, some child care workers have gotten sick, with Black, Latinx, and Native American workers at greatest risk, according to one study (though it was not clear if they contracted the virus at work).
Meanwhile, the sheer level of community spread of the virus, especially in hard-hit areas like California, has forced many providers to shut down repeatedly in recent months because a child or parent tested positive. “We hear of providers closing down twice in a month because of exposures,” Frankenberg said.
But that front-line status hasn’t translated into vaccine access for many child care workers around the country. In addition to Kentucky, at least four states — Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming — have placed child care workers in a lower tier than teachers, according to EdSurge. Several other states, like Florida, have not yet prioritized either teachers or child care workers, and in some places, a chaotic rollout has meant even those in priority groups cannot be sure when they’ll get the vaccine.
In Kentucky, while teachers are currently being vaccinated as part of tier 1b in the state, child care workers will have to wait for 1c — along with anyone over 60, adults and older teens with high-risk conditions, and all essential workers. That’s about 1.4 million people, according to Bradley Stevenson, executive director of the Child Care Council of Kentucky.
The lack of priority is especially concerning because child care workers make low wages — an average of less than $11 an hour nationwide — and often lack paid leave or health benefits. “This vaccine is their health insurance right this moment,” Stevenson told Vox.
Priority isn’t always a guarantee of access
Meanwhile, just being put in a priority group hasn’t necessarily been enough for child care workers to actually get the vaccine. In California, they’re 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 the rollout, many child care workers are getting left behind.
In Los Angeles County, for example, child care workers had heard they would be able to be vaccinated in early February, Mayra Escobar, who operates a day care in the San Fernando Valley, told Vox. But now it’s mid-February with no shots in sight. Escobar was able to get her first dose of the vaccine only because she also works as a pediatric nurse. But other providers she knows are asking, “When is our turn?”
Around the country, the push to prioritize seniors for the vaccine has raised concerns about access for essential workers, especially since many older people are retired and have time to navigate a variety of websites and hotlines, while many front-line workers do not. That’s especially true for child care workers, who often work 12- to 14-hour days with few breaks.
Beyond finding the time to make an appointment and get the vaccine, there are other hurdles. Though the vaccine is free, some workers are being told they may need to pay costs for an office visit or other fees, which are especially prohibitive for low-wage workers, Frankenberg said. There are also concerns about documentation — while some day care center owners may be able to show a business license if asked to prove where they work, employees may have no documents that prove they work in child care. And the confusing, piecemeal nature of the vaccine rollout in California (and elsewhere) means it’s often not clear what documents, if any, people will have to show in order to get a shot.
Outreach is an issue, too. Just like people in other jobs, child care workers have a range of attitudes to the vaccine, from eagerness to concern about side effects. In conversations with employees and others, Washburn says she hasn’t heard from anyone who was adamantly opposed to the vaccine. “But I do have some people that are still curious and still watching and still trying to make decisions,” she said.
And for some, the information to help make those decisions may be lacking. For example, outreach materials or information on vaccine safety and side effects may not always be available in languages that child care workers are most comfortable reading and speaking. In general during this pandemic, “even in a state as diverse as California, too much of the information that goes out is in English only,” Frankenberg said.
Moreover, simply putting vaccine information on a website isn’t necessarily enough to make sure child care workers see it. Older people especially may need a different form of outreach if they’re not as tech-savvy, Escobar said. And in her experience, it’s older providers who have been most hesitant about the vaccine. That includes her mom, who also works in child care and is still on the fence — she’s worried the vaccine was developed too quickly. “Throwing facts” at her about the vaccine development process hasn’t worked, Escobar said, so now she’s trying a more personal approach: “I’m going to get the shot for you today, and you can get it for me tomorrow.”
But not every provider has a family member who’s a nurse to walk them through the process. Overall, authorities need to communicate about the vaccine “in languages that people speak, from messengers that they trust, and in ways that they consume information,” Frankenberg said.
Workers need vaccines to meet them where they are
Around the country, child care providers and their advocates are pushing for changes. In Kentucky, they’re hoping to get child care workers priority within tier 1c so they can be vaccinated once the state is finished with K-12 teachers. Washburn would also like to see an effort to vaccinate daycare workers at or near the centers, much the way authorities in Kentucky did with nursing homes.
And extended hours would help providers working long shifts make it to appointments, Escobar said. Her center, for example, is open 24 hours a day to care for the children of essential workers, so it’s very difficult to take time off. “There’s no such thing as 9-to-5 right now.”
Whether it’s mobile vaccination units, longer hours, or another strategy, Frankenberg agrees that “we want to make sure that our providers who are in person with these children every day are given priority access in a way that’s simple and straightforward to navigate.”
Child care workers acknowledge that vaccine priority is a complex issue, with limited supply and many groups of Americans at high risk. Washburn, for example, is happy that Kentucky is vaccinating people over 70. “I’m so glad to get my in-laws into that pool,” she said. “That makes me excited.”
But they and their advocates argue that in the rush to vaccinate millions of Americans as quickly as possible, those caring for the nation’s youngest children have sometimes been forgotten.
“They should be at the front of the line,” Frankenberg said, “not pushed further and further back.”