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Childhood education receives $120M from ARPA funds

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Dr. Melanie Thomas-Price, CEO of A Leap of Faith Child Development Center, talked about the workforce issues the childcare sector faces in Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

DOVER — One year ago, Dr. Melanie Thomas-Price started making calls to her teachers who worked at A Leap of Faith Child Development Center, unsure of who would continue to work during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All but one signed on to serve. My teachers, some have pre-existing conditions, 90% of them are single mothers … these mothers answered the call,” Thomas-Price said on Monday morning. “I have never been so proud. … [Early childhood education] must be strengthened to serve and answer the call. When early education is strong, our children and future adults are strong and it leads to a stronger nation.”

Thomas-Price and thousands of early childhood educators and care providers have been holding the line for Delaware’s workforce since the start of the pandemic. Gov. John Carney heard this call and has allocated $120 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to provide financial relief for the childcare industry. 

The governor celebrated the announcement on a windy morning with state and federal leaders at Delaware State University, right outside the university’s education and humanities building, where future teachers and administrators are taught. Behind those who took the podium, children raced on a playground outside the building which houses the university’s Early Childhood Laboratory School.

Included in the $120 million allocation, the Carney administration will set aside $24 million in childcare stabilization grants to keep providers working, on top of the $66 million in CARES Act funding distributed in earlier rounds of grants. The state also earmarked $10.6 million in direct aid to Delaware childcare workers.

Gov. John Carney announces an allocation of $120 million to support the childcare industry in Delaware, including $30.6 million for a new early childhood innovation center at Delaware State University. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

“In the last 20 months, we have really come to understand how important early education for our children really is,” Carney said. “It’s about making sure our children have a head start but it’s also about care for our children and the workers behind the workers. These resources are essential to strengthen our workforce and educate our children so our future is great for all of our little ones.”

In addition, DSU will partner with the state Department of Education and Department of Health and Social Services to build an early childhood innovation center and expand access to affordable childcare to families in need. The university will receive $30.6 million over the next five years in order to develop a statewide infrastructure for those seeking careers in the childcare industry. The funding is the university’s largest grant received to date, eclipsing billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s donation of $20 million from last year.

Nationwide, childcare workers are leaving the industry due to burnout and low wages. The industry is down 126,700 workers overall and more than 10,000 workers have left since June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Delaware, Thomas-Price — who owns two centers in Wilmington — said she’s seen class enrollment plummet in the city, faced with recruitment and retention struggles and staff members struggle with fatigue and stress.

“These are implications that cannot be ignored,” she said. “Today, we are making the call. There is an urgent need to get qualified teachers back in the classrooms. We want to get Delawareans working again. We cannot continue to do what we do unless we get people working again.”

The terms of the agreement outline that DSU will hire roughly six full-time staff members to shore up its early childhood education program and design a program that will offer certifications, and associate and bachelor degrees with various coaching components. The university will also be tasked with creating a hybrid learning program to cater to working professionals and a scholarship model to support working professionals as they pursue a new career path.

The goal is to make DSU ground zero for advancing professional development of future caregivers and teachers, with the infrastructure expanded throughout the state. 

For DSU Education Department Chair Shelley Rouser, the state’s investment fulfills a longtime dream she’s had of supercharging DSU students’ path to teaching in classrooms. Rouser worked with the state to develop the framework for the five-year deal with the state.

“DSU has a legacy of opening the doors and rolling out the red carpet for those who otherwise would have had the door shut on them,” Rouser said. “The inequities of 2021 may look different than the past, but they do persist. We have an opportunity to turn things around, for those who may have lost their courage or may have not had the opportunity to pursue their education. We cannot change all issues we’re facing, but we can do something. We are excited that DSU can take the lead for our early childhood professionals.”

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