As our nation continues to recover from COVID-19, it’s important that our main priority isn’t merely to get back to where we were before the pandemic started.

The last year has shown business leaders that, while we get ready to reopen to full capacity, the pre-pandemic status quo won’t cut it moving forward. One of the biggest obstacles to economic recovery is an obstacle that existed long before COVID-19: the child care crisis.

This crisis has only worsened during the pandemic.

We need to take steps to face it now.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation recently funded a survey of child care center staffing. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said that the pandemic has made it more difficult to hire and retain qualified staff. The staffing crisis has forced one-third of North Carolina providers to temporarily close their doors with little notice to parents, sending them and other primary caregivers scrambling. And, nationwide, six out of 10 child care centers shut down at some point during the pandemic, with many struggling to reopen due to a lack of workers.

Unfortunately, attempts to remedy this problem are caught in a vicious cycle. In North Carolina, low pay is the top reason cited by early childhood educators as to why they have left the field. The annual mean wage for child care teachers in the state is $24,600, compared to $30,680 for pre-K teachers and $49,540 for kindergarten teachers. Almost 40 percent of early childhood teachers in North Carolina rely on public assistance to meet the needs of their own families.

While raising their salaries could attract more workers and help solve the staffing shortage, it would escalate another crisis point in the child care landscape: affordability. Center-based infant care already costs 11 percent of the median income of a married couple in North Carolina. With a price tag averaging $9,254 per year, child care is more expensive than the $7,056 average annual cost of North Carolina public college tuition.

These high prices prevent families from paying more for child care, meaning that providers can’t earn enough revenue to raise the wages of their employees. The end result is a negative feedback loop that is hurting our economy. The current estimate of statewide economic damage in North Carolina due to lost earnings, productivity, and revenue caused by the shortage of quality child care is $2.9 billion annually.

The question now is: What can we do to stop these losses? A report I released along with ReadyNation, Child Care Providers: The Workforce Behind the Workforce in North Carolina, outlines how bolstering the early childhood workforce in the state is essential to increasing child care supply and children’s access. The report explains that the best way to achieve these goals is to increase compensation for early childhood educators and create incentives for teachers to pursue further education and training.

Fortunately, North Carolina has two existing programs that support these aims. The Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) Early Childhood Scholarship Program provides scholarships for two- and four-year degree programs in early childhood education.

Upon completion, T.E.A.C.H. participants qualify for a raise or bonus from their employers. Our state also has the WAGE$ Project, which rewards additional education with salary increases. Multifaceted strategies like these represent promising ways of building a well-qualified workforce, increasing the quality of early care and education, and ultimately benefiting children with enhanced experiences and improved learning.

North Carolina must invest in programs like T.E.A.C.H., WAGE$, and additional strategies that reward and incentivize educators. These investments can help ensure all early educators receive the professional compensation and support they need to provide high-quality early learning experiences for all children and parents who want and need it.

Simply put, if we want families to have access to quality child care in North Carolina, we need more qualified teachers to enter and stay in the workforce. 

John R. Lumpkin, MD, is the president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at