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Shining a Spotlight on "Essential Personnel"

During this pandemic, our community has demonstrated that we are made up of many local heroes; we call them “essential personnel.” Healthcare workers, first responders, grocery store and food service workers, are being lauded for putting themselves on the front line to provide a essential services for our community.

On March 23, 2020 Governor Ralph Northam issued Executive Order Fifty-Three requiring the temporary closure of non-essential businesses and K-12 schools in Virginia. This order does not require the closure of child care facilities, including child care centers and family day homes. The provision of child care for essential personnel is essential business, therefore, child care workers are essential workers. Virginia Department of Social Services states that “child care providers themselves, whether in child care centers or family day homes, are essential personnel and are experts in providing safe, healthy and supportive environments to young children including during times of crisis.”

But not everyone got the memo. Child care workers have been providing the same services pre-pandemic and will continue to provide them post-pandemic. Child care is often perceived as synonymous with babysitting. It’s a bad idea to sit on babies. HIGH quality child care centers, like those in the Virginia Quality Initiative, go above and beyond babysitting.

A high quality child care environment is a program that provides a safe and nurturing environment while promoting the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development of children. A high quality child care program addresses the whole child in a developmentally appropriate manner. Long term outcomes of quality programs include better peer relationships, increased literacy scores, better problem solving and conflict resolution skills, reduced teen pregnancy, reduced adult incarceration rates, higher education success, and a sustainable workforce pipeline and tax base. High quality childcare can be a safe haven for vulnerable children by giving them a consistent environment of care.

Right now, many child care providers have reached a tipping point and have been forced to make some hard decisions. Daily attendance is down due to safe distancing requirements and furloughs. Likewise, child care providers have furloughed their workers in order to be able to sustain their small business. Because of the traditionally low wages that caregivers have received, much of the child care workforce can make more money by collecting unemployment rather than working. And who can blame them for choosing the former?

If “essential personnel” need child care for their families, doesn’t that make child care workers essential personnel, as well? Shouldn’t they be compensated at a level that speaks to their being essential?

So how do we change the mindset and raise the level of respect, appreciation, and compensation of child care workers?

Smart Beginnings Virginia Peninsula seeks to:

  • Promote an early childhood system that integrates a trauma informed approach into services and programs

  • Enhance local and state level efficiencies through system-wide coordination and collective impact.

  • Advance the physical and social-emotional well-being of children through prenatal and early childhood parent education and support.

  • Increase access and availability of high-quality early care and education opportunities for all children.

  • Strengthen the business model of early child care and education programs and services.

Increased advocacy is critical to ensure that the essential work of child care is of high quality. Businesses need to advocate for their employees with families; parents need to advocate for their children; government needs to advocate for the workforce and economy. By joining our voices, we can ensure that every child on the Virginia Peninsula is ready for school and ready for life.

Belinda H. Willis, Community Advocate


Belinda H. Willis serves as a consultant, strategic thinking partner, and coach to organizations as they plan and implement change.

Her work is heavily concentrated in the Human Services and non-profit arenas. She has been an advocate for quality early childhood initiatives throughout her career and is currently working with Smart Beginnings Virginia Peninsula on their Collective Impact Initiative.

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