Tip Sheet

EWA Tip Sheet: How to Produce a Great Child Care/Early Ed Story

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented interest in child care. Without child care, many parents cannot work. At the same time, providers are struggling to remain open. 

Those facilities that have powered through the pandemic are serving fewer children, have laid off staff and have encountered additional costs, such as cleaning supplies and PPEs. Many have closed, possibly permanently.

A November 2020 survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) found that 56% of child care centers reported losing money every day they remain open. Sixty percent of the centers said they were trying to reduce expenses through layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. More than half of minority-owned centers said they wouldn’t be able to remain open more than three months if things remained the same.  

There are important stories to tell in every community about the coronavirus’ impact on children from birth to age 3, but many education reporters have little experience covering this field. Reporters (and editors) have traditionally seen the education continuum as starting in kindergarten.

To provide journalists with practical assistance and story ideas, the Education Writers Association featured a session at its recent “crash course” virtual event on early learning and care with working journalists. The session featured Amy Feiereisel of North Country Public Radio and Lillian Mongeau of The Hechinger Report. I (Kavitha Cardoza) moderated the discussion.

Top takeaways/tips

Early childhood education covers a lot of ground. Recognize that you won’t be able to cover every aspect of the topic in one story. If you can bring in other reporters, do it. 

Amy Feiereisel says her newsroom planned team coverage around child care during coronavirus, and every reporter contributed. To help get buy-in across the newsroom, they invited a local expert to one of their daily meetings. That person explained the magnitude of the problem in their area and answered questions from reporters before anyone started reporting on the topic. 

There is no one system or one central office for information. The child care sector is highly decentralized. Reporters can obtain a list of providers from the state agency that licenses centers (though there are legally operating unlicensed child care centers in every state) but you still need to do on-the-ground reporting. 

For one story, Mongeau drove around a community and knocked on doors. Some of the bigger centers might have a web presence, but lots don’t. 

Find community organizations that support or advocate for early childhood education. Use them as a guide to get the lay of the land. Some national organizations have local affiliates (such as Birth to Three), others truly are local, such as the North Country Coordinating for Council for Childcare in upstate New York or DC Action for Children in the District of Columbia.

To find families struggling with child care, you can do an email call out to your audience or to your readers/listeners, check out Facebook groups, neighborhood listservs or go to local playgrounds and speak to parents. 

When visiting a center to observe children’s activities, ask the staff about what you see. Children may look like they are “just” playing, but educators on hand can help explain what’s behind certain activities and what participants are gaining from the experience. 

Understand the funding streams for child care centers. Individual centers typically receive what’s known as “braided” funding, a mix of federal, state, local and private dollars. Some child care centers get reimbursed by the government for serving low-income children, for example. Check whether the criteria for reimbursement have changed during the pandemic. 

Trying to reach child care providers? Call in the afternoon (between 1 and 3 p.m.). That’s usually nap time, when you have the best chance to chat with child care providers! 

Background information to know

  • How many centers are there in your coverage area? (The local government licensing department should be able to give you that information). Are they  center based or home based? How many children are served? How many accept subsidy vouchers? 
  • Child care centers usually have very low child to staff ratios (especially compared with K-12 schools) so personnel costs are typically the biggest expense. 
  • How are the centers funded? Did any receive PPP (Paycheck Protection Act) loans through the federal CARES Act? How was the money spent? What is a breakdown of a center’s monthly budget pre pandemic vs. what it is now? How do fewer children affect the budget? What kinds of supports (training webinars, assistance filling out loan applications etc.) have centers received from states and local governments? 

Story Ideas

Quick hit:

  • How many centers in your community (or coverage area) have closed since the pandemic began? How many have reopened? How many children have returned?

  • Produce a user friendly overview of the Biden administration’s relevant proposals (as well as recently enacted programs), including what they would do, how much they cost, who exactly would benefit, and the political prospects for adoption in a closely-divided Congress.

  • What is the child care tax credit? Ask families how it might impact their child care choices, especially given a major infusion of dollars under the $1.9 billion stimulus President Biden signed in March 2021.

Enterprise:

  • What are the hurdles to more child care centers opening? How do local regulations compare to those in other communities, states etc?
  • Follow a center on the verge of closing.
  • Have there been enrollment changes after women dropped out of the workforce to care for their children?
  • How have child care centers operated by people of color been impacted by the pandemic? Are they more likely to struggle or close? If yes, why?
  • Explain the business model for child care centers and where the money is spent. Most people don’t understand why they pay so much for private child care, yet providers say the profit margin is so little. Breaking down expenses and explaining mandatory child-staff ratios will help.
  • What efforts are underway to professionalize the child care workforce, and what are the barriers? 
  • Which child care providers are most at risk? Those serving children whose parents pay or those that are subsidized by the government?
  • How have advances in the science of early brain development helped to underscore the importance of 0 to 3 care and best practices?

Long-form journalism:

  • Many children have missed a whole year of early education. How far behind are they? Do kindergarten teachers have plans to catch them up?
  • Compare two centers in two cities and how each state has invested in early education.
  • Where are centers closing? Have these closings created child care deserts? 
  • What does success look like in child care? For example, the U.S. military has invested in what many view as a world-class early education system. 
  • To what extent are local employers offering high quality child care? What are some lessons to learn and what are the challenges with replicating or scaling up such models?

Resources