Helping Georgia expand child care to thousands
When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, it forced school after school to close its doors, disrupting education for students of all ages. The impact on early childhood education programs and childcare providers was devastating.
Parents with the means to work remotely kept their kids home. Not knowing when the pandemic might end or students would return, many childcare providers were financially strained. Between December 2019 and March 2021, data shows that 16,000 U.S. childcare centers closed.
But instead of pending disaster, Georgia state officials saw opportunity. Three years later, many of the state’s childcare providers remain open and solvent, an additional 10,000 low-income children have state-subsidized care, and the quality of care has improved.
“Everybody always knew child care was important – to have affordable, quality child care and a safe place for parents to take their children,” says Project Manager Dwayne Brown at Maximus, the private partner that helps administer the Georgia Childcare and Parent Services program (CAPS). “But the pandemic changed a lot in terms of the importance of funding it, (especially) as it relates to the providers themselves.”
COVID-19 exposed the fragility of an early childhood care system that didn’t have the financial resources to weather an unexpected pandemic. But it also made clear the value of those same providers.
Georgia categorized early childhood providers as essential workers early in the pandemic. While many parents had the ability to work remotely and keep their children home with them, other parents – many of them essential workers in low-paying jobs – could not.
“From a CAPS standpoint, it was important that their children had a place to go,” says Brown. “You didn't want to disrupt or discontinue the education of children who needed safe, affordable child care.”
Research shows that a child’s early relationships and experiences with caregivers can dramatically influence their brain development and social-emotional and cognitive skills, as well as their future health and success in school.
Recognizing that many childcare providers would not be able to stay open if only half their slots were filled, the state used available federal COVID relief funds to help providers cover the reduced revenue. The Short-Term Assistance Benefit for Licensed Entities (STABLE) payments enabled childcare programs to stay open and cover increased operating costs. The state expects to continue providing STABLE payments through September 2023.
While the payments were in response to a public health crisis, Georgia officials saw an opportunity to advance the quality of childcare and early childhood education programming throughout the state and expand the number of children able to take advantage of it.
Maximus created systems and approaches that would enable the state to continue improving early childhood programming into the future.
Create a system to make it easier for childcare providers to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that more of the state’s children had a safe place to learn and grow.
Since 2007, Brown and his team have helped childcare providers navigate the state’s requirements and provide the documentation needed to operate. That experience gave them a clear understanding of what was needed to improve the process for the long term. The relief funds and the state’s determination to increase the number of low-income students enrolled in quality childcare programs provided the means. The state needed to disperse the funds quickly.
Brown created a system to accelerate the documentation and application process for the funds. The team incorporated new technology, created a robust website based on input from childcare providers, and added a document management system. To qualify for funds, providers had to submit the number of children enrolled prior to the pandemic, their capacity rate, and what the center was billing before parents pulled children out, in addition to current enrollment. The state used that information to determine the amount needed to keep the business viable.
Some of the more informal providers, often grandmothers and aunts who cared for six children or less in their homes, were not technologically savvy. Brown’s team worked directly with them to complete the required documentation.
“It’s all about getting the paperwork filled out right,” says Brown. Some providers had the wrong legal entity sign the documents, didn’t know if they were classified as an LLC or corporation, failed to provide needed detail or simply forgot to sign the paperwork.
Once a month, Brown’s team uses Zoom to help providers fill out their documents. This service has steadily increased the first-time successful submission rate from 83% to 91%.
The new system is about more than helping providers obtain STABLE payments. It’s about quality and maintaining integrity. The team implemented a customer care call system where each member reaches out to new providers within 90 days to answer questions and help them operate better. According to Brown, the new system expedites the team’s ability to ensure integrity of payment. “One of the big things with any state program is the integrity of the payments,” says Brown. “Are we paying the right people the right amount at the right time?”
The state of child care in Georgia at a glance
The Maximus difference
Since Brown walked into the offices at 34 Peachtree Street Northwest in Atlanta, he has always been in what he calls the constant pursuit of better. “How can it be better, whether it’s our website, our customer service, or whatever it is,” says Brown. “The people I work with, they push me in terms of what I see them do – the innovation, the commitment, the dedication.”
That ethic is making a difference to thousands of Georgian children. Not only is the state’s childcare capacity close to what it was before the pandemic, but the quality is improving, and more kids are benefitting from it.
As a former football coach in Tallahassee, Brown knows the importance of a solid relationship to a child’s development. “I coached the younger ages. I never coached about winning. I always coached the whole child,” he says, adding that he could see the difference relationships and early learning made in the formation of a young mind and what they proceeded to do later in life. “The kid who you met, who couldn’t tie his shoe, he’s about to get a scholarship. And it didn’t have anything to do with coaching football.”