Every day, we learn more about how COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on families, businesses, and communities. This frightening pandemic has hit homes and our community with hardships we could not have imagined. Even with the daily worry and troubling news, one doesn’t have to look far in Iredell County to see the determination to beat the enemy virus. As in any war, we honor those on the frontlines while staying true to our civic values.

We experience virtual and drive-in church services providing hope and strengthening our faith. We applaud courageous health care workers. We celebrate the survivors and have compassion for victims and loved ones. We urge others to stay safe and be well while practicing social-distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. Our schools, colleges and universities implement innovative ways to teach students. We feed the hungry and house the growing number of homeless. Families, friends and neighbors have a renewed commitment to connect and check on each other. A new awareness and appreciation for the necessary work of first responders and essential workers is evident.

There remains, however, a very necessary profession and critical need that is often overlooked. Quality child care is undervalued not only in Iredell County but also across our state and nation. Ask essential workers, who supports their ability to work and ensure children thrive in a safe, healthy and happy learning environment? Ask company managers, what would happen if their employees did not have someone to look after their children? Ask kindergarten teachers to tell you about the long-term challenges children face when they enter school already behind in their social, emotional and intellectual development.

Yes, it’s time we value the child care profession!

Child care programs have been faced with many challenges: making difficult decisions about whether to close their doors or remain open to provide emergency care for essential workers, about staying up to date on rapidly changing policies and procedures, about procuring health and safety items needed to maintain standards, about dealing with financial uncertainty, navigating relief programs and much more.

Despite these challenges, child care providers continue to step up and do what is best for children and families. Day after day, they wash their hands a few more dozen times, they disinfect toys more frequently, and they continue to nurture and educate the children in their care, while trying to avoid the ever-present germs in a line of work where social distancing is not an option and face masks are discouraged.

They, too, are on the frontlines, risking their own well-being as well as the health of their families. They are underpaid and often operate on razor-thin profit margins. Many have no health insurance or even paid sick time and qualify for financial assistance. They are among our county’s most unsung heroes, yet they continue to go unnoticed and underappreciated.

Nearly one-third of child care programs in Iredell County have closed and those that remain open are facing catastrophic declines in enrollment, making it more difficult to pay bills, fixed costs, and already underpaid teacher salaries. And while some have applied for the Pay Check Protection Program and Small Business Loans, few have received COVID- related funding.

It is unlikely the industry will recover without significant relief, leaving parents without the care they relied on before this pandemic. Our economic recovery and future depends on substantial investments in the child care industry. Friday, May 8, is Provider Appreciation Day, but simply showing our appreciation is not going to save the industry on which every other industry depends.

Lisa Familo is the executive director of Iredell County Partnership for Young Children.

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