What’s after disaster?

What can the rest of the country learn from New Orleans?

New Orleans is currently being described as a hotspot for all the wrong reasons, having the most active cases of COVID-19 over the last couple of weeks. The lack of national attention over COVID’s rapid spread in New Orleans has drawn the ire of many of my fellow natives because it is an acute reminder of the neglect we felt when the levees failed after Katrina, and many of our city’s most vulnerable were left to fend for themselves.

Walt Handelsman
Credit: Our city’s editorial cartoonist- The extraordinary Walt Handelsman

While there are stark differences between what happened in 2005 and this current situation, the rest of the country would be wise to look to New Orleans to learn about recovery, and how to get back on your feet.  It all boils down to child care.*

  1. Child care is a part of the essential infrastructure of the economy.

My first job after Hurricane Katrina was to open the first new child care center since the storm. A group of parents made the hard decision, after seeing weeks of news coverage showing entire neighborhoods submerged in flood waters, to come back to New Orleans and raise their young families. Every family had some version of the conversation: Will we return to New Orleans? Where will we live? During COVID-19, we may be asking similar questions: When will I feel safe enough to leave the house again? When will things return to normal?

What these families returning to New Orleans may not have realized was that only 20% of child care centers reopened after Katrina. And so they returned home, ready to work, but could not.  Because of the lack of quality early child care centers. Along with the other families of Abeona House, we started the center because that was easier than finding quality care. Can you imagine once COVID-19 is over, not being able to return to work?

We were featured in a story by NPR that year. The same challenges  will remain after COVID-19 without real investment in early learning centers:

  • Families will want to return to work, but early learning centers will close during COVID-19 and not reopen. Centers do not have the working capital to stay open during this crisis because of the thin margins of providing quality care.
  • The workforce will shift. Businesses eager to reopen will offer hiring bonuses, and former early childhood teachers who may have lost their jobs, will be ready for work. This loss of investment in workforce training and skills is huge.

Recommendation: Leaders should recognize the importance of early learning centers in their talking points, current funding decisions, and future planning.

2.  To encourage early learning centers to flourish, regulatory flexibility is a must.

Abeona House opened on September 6, 2006, more than one year after the storm, and we were the first. What took so long?  Local challenges delayed the opening of the early learning center by 6 months or more. Here are some examples:

  • Zoning Variances: The location we identified for the center was not previously zoned for child care. I had to knock on every door in our neighborhood and convince them that a child care center would be a good neighbor. Then, our application was placed at the bottom of a very tall stack (you may laugh at the Donald Trump reference in the NPR story…our application was under his. Small potatoes, comparatively, but our center was so important to families).
    Recommendation: Prioritize new early learning centers in local Board of Zoning Adjustment proceedings.

 

  • Blanket zoning requirements: Right before our hearing, we learned that we did not have sufficient parking in front of our center. We were able to rent a couple of spots from a not-so-proximal, but slightly confused neighbor with an unused lot. Box checked. Tiny budget shrinking. A three month extension to figure this out would have been helpful.
    Recommendation: Be flexible with regulatory requirements that do not threaten the health and safety of children and families. Allow a grace period for non-critical regulatory compliance to help new centers open quickly.

3.  The most important message here: Hold on to what you have. Invest in existing early learning centers now, as they may not reopen after this crisis is over.

It should have been a sign to me back then, of the financial vulnerability of the early learning sector, that only 20% of centers reopened after Katrina. I didn’t realize what I was signing up for, and only did so because I felt the need to be close to my infant son. The work and community was a labor of love, but every couple of weeks, I anxiously paid teachers, nothing near what they were worth, and yet, we were always one bill away from closure.  I lived in the Catch-22 of being in high demand and wanting to scale, but never having any savings to invest in growth. In the early learning sector, I found the most committed professionals, including many owners who never took a salary or a vacation. This dedication was unmatched by public interest or investment in them.

Louisiana has come a long way since then. Our early learning system is ranked number 8 in the country. This has happened because of our state’s deep investment in our early childhood teachers and the directors of centers. They may be one bill away from closure right now. These decisions can turn on a dime.

Recommendation: Engage early learning center leaders today. Learn what supports they need, and partner with them like your community depends on it. Because it does.

*The term “child care” was used throughout this post because, while it is an archaic term, there is a shared understanding that it refers to the early care and education of young children. Please forgive me, my fellow warriors.

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