Not all Greater Chattanoogans have access to quality childcare options.

For many households in Greater Chattanooga, providing children with high-quality childcare during their early years is not a given. Sending a child to a daycare or early education program is expensive — in fact, 63% of Tennessee parents report finding affordable childcare as a significant challenge. For families that are income-constrained, access to quality childcare and the related costs often causes significant financial and emotional strain. About 66% of children in Tennessee have both parents in the workforce, often out of necessity, meaning the household can not afford to lose half their income in order to have a parent stay home. However, the cost of program-based childcare (about $15,814 a year on average for a family of four) often eats up about 10% or more of household income, leaving these families financially burdened either way. These gaps in access to quality childcare have been an issue in Greater Chattanooga for quite some time. And now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects, we can safely assume these gaps have only shifted and increased.  

Early childhood education and care: a Q&A  

In order to gain a better picture for the current landscape of early childcare in our community, we spoke with one of our partners providing early education, program-based childcare. Read on to learn more from the Carmen Carson, the CEO of Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center, who works on the frontlines of this growing issue.

Q: What is the difference between early childhood education and child care?

A: At Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center, early childhood education is focused on providing quality education and learning strategies for all children who enter our center. Our teachers are trained in best practices to promote daily learning, engagement and overall growth and wellbeing for the children.

In contrast, child care typically focuses solely on providing care for children’s safety and wellbeing. While learning and engagement may occur, it typically is not the target of the day for the children.

Q: Why is it important for children to have access to quality child care?

A: Quality childcare promotes early brain development and prepares children for success throughout their life. Many people don’t realize that over 90% of brain growth occurs during this early childhood period of time. So, receiving a high-quality education early in life helps with brain development, social and emotional skills and school readiness.

Q: What are some common barriers to accessing quality child care for people in our community?

A: Common barriers include the cost — childcare can be quite expensive, and while there are some state assistance programs available, the income criteria for such support can also be limiting. Another barrier to quality childcare is the often long waitlists for a spot at an early learning or childcare center. At Little Miss Mag, we currently have a two year long waitlist, and the pandemic has only stalled the enrollment of more children.

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted children, families, and the child care industry?

A: Due to COVID-19, we’ve had to take many measures to mitigate exposure and to promote further safety and wellbeing of our students and staff. As a result, we have reduced class sizes, ceased classed from intermingling and implemented screening procedures in hopes to reduce the risk of exposure. This, in turn, means that we were not able to offer as many spots for enrollment this year as we had hoped.  

Another challenge that Covid-19 has had on families is that many child care centers shut down, which reduced the number of spots available in our local area. As a result, parents are struggling to find spots for their children and many centers now have an excessively long waitlist.

Q: How can people support and learn more about the importance of making quality child care accessible to all?

A: People can support early learning centers by reaching out to see what the particular needs of the center are. If the center is a nonprofit, financial donations to give children scholarships and support are always welcomed.

There is help: childcare assistance 

United Way of Greater Chattanooga partners with several organizations and programs who offer support to income-constrained households financially burdened by childcare. One of those programs is the Chattanooga Early Learning Scholarship, or CELS, which is administered by United Way of Greater Chattanooga and funded by the City of Chattanooga. Families that meet the eligibility qualifications for CELS can receive assistance up to 40% of tuition. We’ll talk more next week about CELS details and the real Chattanoogan families who have benefitted from the program. For now, make sure to check out our CELS webpage to learn more.

When you give to United Way of Greater Chattanooga, you partner with us in the fight for the success of every child in our community, and you empower organizations like Little Miss Mag to care for and educate our youngest generation. This kind of work is not possible without you — what we do together today determines every tomorrow for Greater Chattanooga’s children.