As early as 1987, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was writing about what is known as “the child care trilemma.” According to NAEYC, the provision of high-quality experiences for young children depends on three basic criteria being met: the quality of the programming being provided, the level of equitable compensation for teachers, and the level of affordability of programming for families.

Quality programming for young children is not just focused on physical health and safety but also on early childhood experiences that support their mental health, meet their emotional needs for comfort and care, and their social needs for connection and friendship. Access to materials and opportunities to explore, discover and learn about their world are integral to high-quality early childhood programs.

Compensation for early childhood teachers is directly related to program quality in this labor-driven field. Recruiting and maintaining well-trained teachers depends on our ability to compensate them in a field where teachers typically make half the salary of kindergarten teachers. Teachers’ education and experience, their informed interactions with children and families, and their consistent relationships are at the heart of every high quality program.

All working families should have access to equitably affordable child care, but child care rates typically rival those of private school and college tuitions. Prior to Covid-19, programs across the board have been relying on the hidden subsidy of an early childhood staff that was inadequately compensated in order to provide quality programming that is barely affordable for most families.

Now in the wake of the pandemic, this already precarious system is in danger of toppling. While essential workers in other fields are receiving hazard pay, early childhood teachers are being asked to go back to work, face-to-face with young children who are not capable of consistent social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding surfaces and other virus mitigating practices. Teachers are also asked to give up their unemployment pay that most often was more than their wages as teachers.

The costs of programming have also increased dramatically as cleaning and sanitizing procedures multiply and the requirement for additional space per child and fewer children per teacher lowers tuition incomes. The only way for many programs to survive will be to double tuition or cut salaries and staff. In this tuition-driven model it seems either the parents or the staff will pay the price. But ultimately, of course, it is our children who will pay the price.

It is time to stabilize our child care system with community, state and federal support. We are worried about the children. We are worried about what will become of our programs and our teachers. We are worried about the impact on the well-being of families.

As a community we need to think creatively and proactively to stand up for our children and ensure their needs are met fully and equitably.

Leigh Ann Yuen has been teaching and advocating for children on Martha’s Vineyard for more than 25 years. She is a founder, co-director and lead teacher at Garden Gate Child Development Center in Vineyard Haven.