The Childcare Crisis

Neighborhood Villages in action, pre- and post-pandemic

Lauren Birchfield Kennedy and Sarah Siegel Muncey

Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, J.D. ’09, and Sarah Siegel Muncey, Ed.M. ’05, met through a mutual friend when they were both pregnant. “Our babies were born within just a couple days of each other,” Kennedy says, “and like so many working moms, we thought, ‘How is it still like this for working parents? How am I supposed to figure out what my career looks like now? How am I supposed to find childcare?’ Sarah and I spent a very long time really thinking through the contribution we could make to this dialogue about the imperative to fix the childcare crisis on so many different levels.”

Kennedy and Muncey ultimately quit their day jobs to establish Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit organization that advocates for solutions to the greatest challenges faced by early-childhood educators, care providers, and administrators, and shares what’s been learned in a weekly podcast. Neighborhood Villages partners with five early learning centers in Boston they call “The Neighborhood”—their “innovation lab” to test programs designed to scale statewide. The organization’s goal is to “demonstrate the infrastructure needed to create a high-quality, affordable, and equitable early education and care system. And prove that building it is possible.” 

 “We felt a special fire in our bellies to come together because Lauren was working in healthcare policy and I was working in K-12 schools,” Muncey says. “You need the policy and the money behind a government program, and then you need the operations for it to actually work. That’s what we’re really experts in, so neither of us felt this was impossible.”

But when they first started Neighborhood Villages, they spoke to many companies, imploring them to consider that, as employers, recruiting and retaining high-quality employees hinges on having good childcare. “Nobody really responded,” they recall. “It was sort of like a pat on the head, thanks for coming in, and one day we’ll become interested in little kids, but today’s not that day.” 

Now, Neighborhood Villages has grown to a team of 27 individuals, and the organization funds its work through a combination of philanthropic contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations as well as government grants and contracts. On any given day, the Neighborhood Villages team connects teachers and program directors to the classes and training they need. The team also supports the Neighborhood by bringing food to families, conducting one-on-one teacher coaching, and leading advocacy for child care policy reform.

Today, Muncey believes more than ever that the biggest obstacle to quality childcare is money: “If there were going to be a silver bullet to save early education, we would start by paying teachers professional wages.” But raising the salaries of educators requires raising the tuition for families, who are already being asked to pay $30,000 per year in a market like Boston.“So, we have been locked in this vicious cycle of pitting affordability against quality,” she explains. “And the only way we can fix that is through public policy. We will never solve this crisis without public dollars and treating childcare like a public good.”

Creating COVID-19 Testing Infrastructure

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 brought the childcare crisis to the attention of companies everywhere. Says Kennedy, “Every employer under the sun was desperate to be able to keep their employees, who were saying, ‘Unless you can solve childcare for me, I can’t come back to work, or I have to work at a reduced capacity….’”

In a system where there already were too few teachers working, COVID forced even more teachers to leave the field, to care for their own children. “We’re still missing a tenth of our teaching population post-COVID, in a universe in which there already weren’t enough teachers in the system pre-COVID,” Kennedy says. “This has become a workforce-development crisis.”

From the beginning, Neighborhood Villages has focused on programs at the state level. “The driving philosophy is that we need government to do big things,” Kennedy emphasizes. “We need government to design and deliver on a system in an equitable manner. When we design a program, it’s with government partnership in mind—there’s only so much any entity can do in partnership with philanthropy.”

One program Neighborhood Villages piloted was COVID-19 pool-testing for teachers: combining samples from several people and conducting one laboratory test on the combined specimens to detect the virus, thus reducing the number of tests needed for any given population: individuals in the pools without positive results could safely be excluded from further testing or isolation at that time. (Positive results from a “pool” require further analysis of the underlying individual samples, or retesting of each person within the pooled sample, to determine who is infected—still, a considerable savings compared to individual testing at a time when resources for testing were very constrained.)

Kennedy and Muncey studied companies that were successful at testing. Based on their inquiries, the Neighborhood Villages staff figured out how to implement pool testing within their “neighborhood” of  teachers. “We got testing to a point where it was humming.” Muncey notes. Given successful testing and isolation where needed, “We went from a three percent positivity rate to statistically zero.” With that evidence in hand, the Massachusetts government agreed to use pool testing for childcare centers throughout the state.

When rapid tests became available, Neighborhood Villages, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Early Educatin and Care, provided free testing to “about 120,000 teachers and children ages two and over around the state, from Nantucket to the Berkshires,” Muncey says.

“No One Is Coming to Save Us”

In the late summer of 2020, Kennedy and Muncey partnered with Lemonada Media (run by two working mothers) to create the “No One Is Coming to Save Us” podcast. The show was conceived to raise awareness of the most important issues in early childhood education and childcare. Kennedy says, “We want to hit the audience who is living the childcare crisis (parents, providers, educators) and tell them ‘Here’s the mess. Here’s how we got here. Here’s how we could get out of it. And here’s what we need you to do to be a part of the movement to make change happen.’”

The podcast, which brings Neighborhood Villages’ agenda to a larger audience, launched its second season this past March. Guests include U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on how to transform the broken system; Olympic champion Allyson Felix on athlete moms who need childcare; and cofounder of Motherly Liz Tenety on how parents can acknowledge they need help. 

Kennedy and Muncey agree that the best introductory episode is Season 1, Episode 2, “Birth of a Broken System.” The episode, says Kennedy, “takes us back in time, asks us to take a good, hard look at all the failures that have led us to today.” The episode covers many of these failures, from the day nurseries of the late nineteenth century, to the Child Development Act of 1971 that attempted to bring a federally funded, universal, affordable early childcare system to the United States.

In spite of that history, as the pandemic has clearly revealed, The resilience of moms and families pulling together to make do in a broken system is truly incredible,” host Gloria Riviera says in the episode. “But resilience is not a childcare system.” And Kennedy and Muncey are trying to take the first steps toward bridging that gap.

Read more articles by: Kristina DeMichele

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