Leadership is hard in the best of times, and it is made more difficult in ambiguous times. Ambiguity begs us to move, to take action, to reach for anything that promises “different,” because the “different” removes us from present discomfort. Decisions made in the face of ambiguity are most likely to please few and disappoint many.
I have made the difficult decision in this time of public health crisis to continue regular operations at both of the Lansing-area child care centers I run–Educational Child Care Center (EC3) and Early Learning Children’s Community (Early LCC)–and I’d like to explain why.
In the present, we are all experiencing the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are living in a state of ambiguity without precedent, and if ambiguity can be categorized, this is the worst kind. Nobody’s life is untouched by this crisis. Our public institutions are closing their doors; transportation is disrupted; restaurants and stores and small businesses of all sorts are shutting down and shifting around. We are collectively unnerved and individually frightened, and we want our leaders to do something–anything–to put things in an order that makes us feel safe.
When Governor Whitmer made the decision to close Michigan’s public schools, I was hoping her order would come with a directive specifically for child care providers–many of which, like EC3 and Early LCC, are schools (even if lawmakers and voters and parents do not share or profess this view). No such directive was issued. I sought explanation from the Governor’s office, thinking perhaps the missing directive was an oversight; I was shocked (but not surprised) to learn that child care providers had, indeed, been considered in the deliberations of our state leaders about how to address the COVID-19 crisis. Those in positions of power determined that child care providers ought to remain open while everything else was closed down because emergency responders–medical personnel, law enforcement, and the like–needed a place to bring their young children (infants, toddlers) while they served the public in heroic fashion. These deliberations included a rationalization that young children (infants, toddlers) have been deemed “low risk” for lasting harm if and when they contract COVID-19.
Taken at face value, these determinations are completely rational. If this crisis had precedent, if there was something in our collective memory we could conjure to soothe our anxiety over imminent danger, these determinations would likely have been made public and put forth with clear authority, infusing those who work in the child care field that their duty was just as heroic as the emergency responders they were serving.
But rationality is in short supply during a reign of ambiguity. This being the case, the Governor’s deliberations and reasoning for making child care providers exempt from institutions requiring closure in “an abundance of caution” have not been highly publicized. Child care providers have not been championed; they have not been promised any of the emergency funding that is being galvanized at the state and federal levels to keep the gears of everyday life in motion. Those of us in leadership positions at child care centers and homes are left with the unenviable responsibility of making decisions that are not only unpopular, but that also have the possibility of bringing about dire consequences within the communities we serve.
The first possible consequence, arising from a decision to keep a child care operation open during this crisis, is as obvious as it is dire: as groups of young children (and the adults who transport them, and the adults who teach them) convene daily, someone might contract or spread COVID-19. It makes no difference whether the probability of this illness causing irreparable harm to the victims is great or small; the valid perception of being among those testing positive is devastatingly frightening. Any child care center or home that ends up on the list of affliction will most certainly close down temporarily, and may later be forced to close down permanently because of the highly sensitive and tenuous nature of financial stability in this field.
Herein lies the second possible consequence with dire implications, which would result from a decision to close down a child care center or home (whether before an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs, or as the result of one). Child care providers–particularly those who are not affiliated with a larger entity that can provide monetary support, such as a corporation, a religious entity, or a larger educational institution such as a school district, college, or university–cannot stay in business if they close down, even for short periods. (And for the record: Early LCC is not affiliated with Lansing Community College in such a way that it would be included in any protections LCC offers its own employees.)
Allow me to elaborate on the nature of financial stability in early childhood education. Independent child care providers–centers and homes–operate entirely on cash flow. Enrollment patterns (and, therefore, revenue) are extremely difficult to predict, while staffing patterns (and, therefore, expenses) need to be constant. The money that comes in each week or month–mostly tuition from parents, because there is very little in the way of donations or grants available to such organizations, and the amount of state assistance for child care given to low-income families is not enough to cover the cost of employing caregivers–all goes out within that same time period. Parents can’t or won’t pay enough to allow child care providers to “put some money in savings for emergencies,” and not even the most shrewd, astute, and responsible money managers are able to create more than one payroll cycle worth of funding to keep the organization going when an emergency strikes.
This fact was shocking to me years ago when I was “just” a parent with a child at EC3. I thought that with the right oversight and vision, the organization could be made financially sustainable–so I did my part and joined the Board of Directors. For three years, I worked alongside a dozen other smart, well-meaning parents to figure out what was wrong or how to make financial operations balance and flow while also building a rainy-day fund. We couldn’t do it. Later, I thought that perhaps the center needed better management and operational skill sets–so I accepted an offer to become Executive Director. For the last ten years, I have been working alongside dozens of smart, well-meaning employees–teachers and administrators with hearts of gold and spines of steel who are willing to work for far less than they are worth or could earn in most other industries. Still we can’t do it.
The hard truth is this: despite decades of research on the importance of high-quality child care and early learning, showing links to positive outcomes for children and families and communities, benefits to the workforce and the economy, and reductions in crime and prison populations, lawmakers and voters and parents are not willing to make substantial investments in child care and early learning. Child care is regarded with the same marginal attention given to higher education prior to 1950; it is looked upon as a luxury for most and a necessity for a rare few. It took a World War–hundreds of thousands of veterans returning to a changed nation–to compel lawmakers and voters and families to recognize that higher education would not only provide a pathway toward brighter futures for individuals; it would also become an economic and cultural engine of its own. Sadly, I am skeptical that even a viral pandemic will have that same enlightening effect on early education.
The third and final dire consequence results from a decision to continue offering child care services during this pandemic. Employees of child care centers and homes–particularly the teaching staff–will feel undervalued and betrayed by their organizational leaders (although perhaps not so much by the lawmakers and voters and parents) and they will swiftly demonstrate their ire by seeking jobs elsewhere. Namely, they will flee to work for the school districts, which not only provide higher wages and snow days and summers off, but which also fall into this realm of protection during times of public crisis. Teachers in the K-12 system may not receive the level of regard afforded to emergency responders, but they are treated like royalty compared to teachers of young children. Child care centers and homes are already struggling to retain credentialed and qualified teaching staff; if these organizations are not financially equipped to adequately demonstrate their respect for teachers by closing their doors when “an abundance of caution” is required, teachers will likely quit. And without teachers, centers will close.
As one can see, the dominoes in this field stand in precariously close proximity.
Yes, leadership is hard work. Over the past week, as COVID-19 has usurped every other topic of import in Lansing and Michigan and the United States and the world, I have yearned for some other leader to make it easier on me–to make hard decisions so that my decisions can be either less hard or deferred entirely.
Ultimately, leadership in emergencies must answer a single question: not “What is the best option?” but rather, “What is the least-worst option?” Least-worst is not an antidote to ambiguity. Least-worst does not garner applause or nods of agreement. Least-worst definitely doesn’t win friends or guarantee continued employment or re-election, and I have developed greater empathy for the Mayor and the Governor and the state and federal Legislators and even the President. I also feel for leaders in business and higher education; I stand in solidarity with child care center managers who have decided to close their doors, as well as those who are trying to remain open; and I agree with both the parents who want me to keep EC3 and Early LCC operational and with the teachers who want me to temporarily close up shop.
Filled with compassion for all viewpoints as I am, I stand by my belief that the least-worst decision I can make at this moment in time is to keep the centers open. I hope and pray that teachers won’t walk out; I hope and pray that parents will continue paying tuition (or at least pay for their contractual two weeks if/when they disenroll) whether they send their kids or not. If and when anything changes that provides a different least-worst option, I will make new decisions accordingly.
Ultimately, I hope and pray that if we all just sit still in the ambiguity for a while longer, each of us summoning calm and courage, doing only the next right thing (rather than grasping for the “different,” ruminating and speculating about the unknowable and unpredictable), we will all survive this pandemic–coming through with perhaps greater awareness and understanding about the services and institutions upon which we rely.