Heather Schmidt of Broken Bow, Nebraska is the owner of Love & Learn Childcare. She is also a student, part-time Administrative Assistant at Mid-Plains Community College’s Broken Bow Campus, and one of many early care providers staring in the uncertain face of COVID-19.
Nebraska Children and Families Foundation was glad to speak with Heather and gather her experiences considering these unprecedented events. Our hearts go out to those who are affected by the coronavirus. As a result, we’d like to shed light on those who have been particularly affected: our early care providers and educators.
As we still envision a state which cultivates the good life for everyone, we recognize that our early care programs are at the front lines of these ever-changing circumstances. For us to move closer, again, to brighter times, these experiences are even more important to share.
Heather has undergone multiple hardships due to the pandemic. Somehow, she has managed to retain a sense of humor, resilience, and pragmatism.
“I know so much about the contents of disinfectants, unemployment insurance, everything,” she said jokingly.
Despite her ability to make light, Heather said she is well-aware of her challenges – in addition to the fact that her challenges are her own.
“I don’t want to speak on behalf of all providers,” said Heather. She said that she respects that every provider and facility is different, so she doesn’t want her experience to be a stand-alone-story.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said regarding Nebraska’s early care workforce and the COVID-19 crisis.
Beyond her busy school-work-life-balance, her husband was recently laid-off. Heather said that her household’s reduced income compounds that hardship.
“I can’t shut my brain off,” she said. “Our income is uncertain, and I don’t even know how to plan.” She added that although her struggle is unique, her colleagues also endure specific setbacks.
“Each provider has their own struggle; some worry financially, some for their health. Some are older people themselves or have a spouse with a medical condition.”
For Heather, her changing number of enrollees adds to her uncertainty. “For me, I went from 12 kids to four” she said. “Now, I have five or six. That is a [reduction of] 50% of my income.
Heather said COVID-19’s unpredictable nature has made it a difficult matter to proactively address. “I never thought to write this [pandemic] down or plan for [COVID-19] as part of my emergency preparedness,” she said.
She explained that in putting together emergency materials, COVID-19 was the last potential setback on her mind.
Still, other questions linger. “How do I be fair to myself as a person and business, but also to my families? I still don’t know what the answer is,” said Heather.
She went on to say that in-home providers must walk a fine line between feeling empathy for families and running a business.
Heather said her concerns remain the same for her families who either removed their children from her care due to social-distancing or are unable to afford childcare anymore.
“When a family can’t afford to pay to hold their child’s space, do you open up to another family who needs you and let the families you have cared for two or three years, maybe even longer, go? I do understand, but I also must be able to care for the families I have now. There is no easy answer,” she said.
Heather said that providers understand the difficult decisions that parents must face when being forced to remove their children from care.
“They’re leaving a provider they know and trust, who has become a part of their family system, with the uncertainty that they will still have childcare when they can return to work. That is scary,” said Heather.
She said that the stark reality also remains. “If you can’t pay me, I can’t hold a spot, yet we’re part of each other’s lives, and the fact that I can’t be a part of it anymore? It’s gut-wrenching.”
“We [providers] don’t have the same struggles as food service or retail,” said Heather. “Childcare is definitely unique in how it’s identified and labeled.”
Among Heather’s struggles are related to not only the families with whom she works, but also her own.
“My employee is my mom,” she said. “She is 70. I worry about her coming [to work], and my father has underlying medical issues.”
Beyond concerns for her own family’s health, Heather has dealt with day-to-day difficulties, including maintaining her supply levels.
From temporary milk restrictions which required purchasers to only buy two gallons at a time to being unable to easily access paper towels, to her online orders being delayed, suddenly basic staples have become commodities.
“Broken Bow is an hour drive to Walmart,” said Heather. “I don’t want to drive to other places right now; it’s safer to stay in my own community, but I want to provide safe conditions, but these are the things I’m worried about. Sam’s Club is out [of paper towels], too. What resources do I use?”
Heather said she was even contemplating posting to an early care Facebook page to see if she could purchase some paper towels from a fellow provider.
“This is the stuff that keeps me up at night,” she said.
Nonetheless, Heather remains busy working away at her degree in Early Childhood Advocacy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She is scheduled to graduate this summer and is appreciative of her professors’ flexibility.
“I’m grateful that I have understanding professors,” she said, “They’ve had to change everything, too.”
Aside from possessing a keen sense of her and her families’ difficulties, Heather has also expressed a dual concern and hopefulness for her fellow providers, too.
“Some are struggling more than others,” she said. “Some say, ‘I’m fine.’ I want to say, ‘Are you really fine? Don’t sugar-coat it.’”
A common attribute that Heather shares with other early care providers is a sense of resourcefulness. She said that despite some families being unable to attend her program, she has found a creative work-around.
“For the last six years I have organized an art show for the providers, centers, and preschools in the area to showcase their children and their program,” said Heather.
She said the Broken Bow Public Library usually hosts the event where they display the exhibit for a few weeks in April and during the “Week of the Young Child.”
“Obviously, we are not going to be able to do that this year,” she said. “So yesterday I created a Facebook group so we can have a virtual art show. The Broken Bow Chamber is promoting it and the Library is as well. Hopefully, word will spread throughout the community.”
Heather has found other solutions, as well…in the most literal sense. She continues to remain up to date on everything from policy to the proper, safe contents of disinfectants.
“I just wish I could have learned all of this over a period of ten years rather than a few weeks,” she said, laughing.
Heather’s sense of humor grants us a sense of hope for a Nebraska we envision in our future once again: a state where, even after difficulty, everyone can and will thrive.
Heather said above all, she wishes is for her and her cohort to be heard.
“We have a common thread, but everyone’s program is unique. It’s like you’re out there by yourself. I don’t know if the community hears me. Or maybe I’m not hearing them,” she said.
Heather and early care providers: we promise, we are listening.