Will early learning, after-school shift toward home-based care?

When Philadelphia launched its new pre-K initiative in 2017, financed through a beverage tax, the city’s Office of Children and Families not only invited centers to become part of the program, but also opened up funding to providers operating home-based early learning programs. 

One of them is Adrienne Briggs, whose Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Home has earned four “stars” in Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS quality rating system (STARS stands for standards, training/professional development, assistance, resources and support).

“I like the intimate setting,” said Briggs. “I get a chance to focus on the children, more one-on-one.”

Briggs serves both pre-K and Head Start children. And while she uses a common preschool curriculum, she has never wanted to work in a center, even though she has a master’s in early-childhood education. 

Her home-based model, experts suggest, might play a larger role in the early-childhood education sector as parents return to work and officials look for ways to get children back in classrooms. 

Already, 17 states have publicly funded preschool programs that include licensed family-child care homes as part of a “mixed-delivery” system, meaning both school- and community-based providers can receive a contract to serve children in the program. Besides Philadelphia’s, other locally funded initiatives using this model include the Seattle Preschool Program.

In addition, of the more than 600,000 school-age children in after-school programs receiving funding through the federal Child Care Development Fund, roughly 25% are in family child care homes, according to the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If schools use rotating schedules in the fall, demand for these providers to serve older children could also increase, suggested Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit.

“The crisis is compounding and family child care centers are absolutely a piece of the solution,” she said.

While many centers across the country have closed during stay-at-home orders — and might not be able to reopen — some in-home providers have been able to continue operating and could be in a better position to enroll children when the need returns. 

“Disproportionately home-based providers have continued to operate to meet the needs of essential workers,” Natalie Renew and Karen Tylek of Home Grown, a nonprofit organization working to increase access to and the quality of family child care, wrote in a joint email. “Home-based care is often the most familiar, flexible, convenient, personal and affordable option for families, and often is the best or only option available for care during nontraditional hours, like evenings, nights and weekends.” 

In Connecticut and the Bronx, New York, for example, two-thirds of the providers affiliated with the All Our Kin network are still open, Erica Phillips, the organization’s chief operations officer, said last week on a press call hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Adrienne Briggs and her preschool students at Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Home.

Sheldon Erb


Concerns over group size

Public pre-K is predominantly delivered in centers and schools. But one reason the public might see a shift toward home-based settings for young children is because health experts suggest it’s better to have “smaller group sizes and consistent groupings, especially children of multiple ages from one or more families” to control the spread of COVID-19, said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

In addition, at-home centers have fewer adults interacting with each other and children. Home-based centers are also likely to have lower overhead costs and aren’t “locked into a lease for a facility or responsible for multiple employees,” he said. 

On the press call, Patricia Cole, senior director of federal policy for the Zero to Three Policy Center, also addressed the cases of a Kawasaki-like syndrome linked to COVID-19 that has been found in children. 

“I think we’ve always been concerned about children being in groups and possibly being asymptomatic carriers and affecting adults. Now we know that there are these very rare, but pretty profound affects,” she said. “I do think it will heighten the attention to those issues and possibly change the type of care that parents are particularly interested in looking at.”

In fact, in a recent survey conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, 63% of parents who still need a formal child care arrangement responded they’ve had difficulty finding one. But 75% of parents expressed concern over their child being exposed to the coronavirus when he or she returns to an early education setting.

Challenges for in-home providers

There are also significant challenges related to relying on home-based providers. First, while many in-home providers have remained open, guidance over health and safety procedures during this time has been inconsistent, according to the BPC. Home-based providers might also not have access to the cleaning supplies and personal protection equipment centers and schools would. 

Home-based providers receiving subsidies to serve children up to age 12 from low-income families already receive less than center-based programs, which can impact their ability to make improvements such as purchasing supplies and educational materials.

The costs associated with providing care during the pandemic have also increased for in-home providers by 19%, according to recent research by the National Women’s Law Center and the Center for Law and Social Policy. 

Second, at-home providers may not have the educational credentials or ongoing training required by public preschool programs. It’s harder for them to take days off for professional development or to attend school. Briggs said she used evenings and weekends to complete her master’s.

“Family child care, as a viable alternative, must be held to the same quality standards that center based child care is,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Likewise, family child care can play a larger role in state pre-K systems, assuming it [meets] the same threshold of quality standards. In many instances this means a bachelor’s degree for the lead teacher.”  

Home-based providers serving both preschool and school-age children also face challenges such as finding separate spaces for older children to do their homework, limiting screen time and providing assistance with schoolwork. 

Melody Robinson, who operates Parent’s Helper Day Care in Oak Park, Illinois, serves children ranging from about a year old through age 13. Many of the older children came to her as babies. She uses a buddy system to give the “school-agers” some responsibility.

“I have always enjoyed the older kids. They are so helpful with the younger children,” she said. “They read stories, play, keep company, whatever their little brother or sister needs. This teaming up helps everyone and has been welcomed by the children and parents.”

Robinson’s center is accredited by the National Association for Family Child Care and is a Certified Nature Explore Classroom. She serves families who receive child care subsidies through Illinois Action for Children, a nonprofit.

Children play on stumps at Melody Robinson’s nature-themed family child care program.

Melody Robinson


But a lot of in-home providers operate outside their state’s formal child care licensing system. In fact, Linda Smith, director of the Early Childhood Development Initiative at BPC, notes when unemployment rates increase, so does the potential for some people to say they’ll make up lost income “by taking care of a couple kids.” This, she said, could be potentially harmful to children.

Smith is advocating for more family child care networks, such as All Our Kin, which can link providers to training opportunities and create greater access to the resources, supplies and expertise they need to run their businesses. 

“Network structures are flexible to community need, yet they all centralize operational functions including recordkeeping, professional development resources, as well as supporting peer-to-peer interactions, creating economies of scale for home-based child care programs,” she and Suzann Morris, a fellow at the center, wrote in a recent brief

In one example, First 5 California, a state agency that administers funding for programs serving young children — is considering a $1.5 million “shared services alliance” as part of an effort to rebuild the early learning sector. 

The agency’s “investments will leverage efficiencies and partnerships to expand the supply of care (including family child care homes) where it is most needed, train new providers and reduce the burdens on families as they access services,” according to a document presented last week at an emergency meeting of the commissioners.

A potential for innovation

Grant suggests depending on how schools stagger schedules, educators, providers and other partner organizations will have to imagine “a new way of learning” that is a “real mix of enrichment, virtual learning and potential classroom learning.”

In fact collaboration between schools and after-school providers is already being discussed as part of the Cleveland, Ohio school district’s thoughts on how to shift to a model in which students learn at their own pace and grade levels are phased out. 

“If we do it well, it can be tremendous,” Grant said, adding it’s important for district and school leaders to work with libraries, commercial property owners, public health officials, AmeriCorps and a broad range of partners to address potential solutions. “They need all these players at the table to design what learning is going to look like.”

With many children already connecting to teachers through Zoom or other online platforms, one model could include virtual class time in a home-based center. 

“I think there is enormous potential for innovative models and ideas,” Renew and Tylek said. “Home-based providers are entrepreneurial and dedicated to the children and families they serve. Technology and virtual supports to the providers and caregivers can be hugely impactful.” 

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