A UMF student works with children at Sweatt-Winter Child Care and Education Center.This article has been updated with more accurate information. FARMINGTON – The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a long overdue, and revealing, light on the position of early childhood education in the United States. Numerous articles and studies have shown the desperate scramble for childcare during the last year, and what the world would look like if that resource suddenly went away. While many centers closed as the virus took hold, Maine’s were allowed to stay open, deemed “essential” right alongside hospitals and grocery stores. But unlike a hospital or a grocery store, childcare centers, and those who operate them, are not paid the way doctors are paid, and are not a business the way Hannaford is a business.“Budgets are always the issue,” University of Maine at Farmington’s Patti Bailie said. “Until we put children and those that work with them at a higher priority, we won’t see what we need to be seeing.”Bailie is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at UMF. Through the nationally recognized program, Bailie guides students along their path toward working with kids. Students get real life experience in the classroom at UMF’s Sweatt-Winter Program, and have the opportunity to explore the career in depth with the help of Bailie. Even still, the majority of her students don’t envision themselves running their own center, she said, because as anyone with skin in the game knows, it’s not a money maker.“One of the things that we know needs to happen is building up the number of people who are trained and qualified and wanting to work in childcare. It’s not just a matter of facilities, but a matter of having a strong workforce of qualified workers. The pay is so low and there are no benefits, so people aren’t attracted to the job,” Maine Association for the Education of Young Children Executive Director Tara Williams said.Right now in all of Franklin County, there are only 42 licensed childcare centers according to Williams, who was taken aback by the number. In response, MAEYC has created the T.E.A.C.H. Scholarship- a nearly full ride, including a small living stipend, for those interested in the career. But Williams envisions flooding the issue with even more resources, and using UMF has a catalyst toward that goal. Much like Educare Central Maine , Williams sees UMF and Sweatt-Winter as a possible hub for high quality training, the best learning environment for little kids, and an invaluable resource for local parents who are seeking help.It is the goal of Sweatt-Winterto be expanding by fall 2022, increasing the number of children they can enroll by 30 percent. Their new home will be at 274 Front Street in Farmington, and will include classrooms for UMF students directly in the facility. The project has been a collaborative effort, Bailie said. The building committee worked not only with UMF staff and students, but community members, non-profit organizations, and even the children themselves.“It’s up to all of us to be a part of this,” Director of Youth and Family Outreach Camelia Babson-Haley said.YFO is a Portland-based childcare center that focuses on a high-quality learning environment for children, staff and parents alike. Right now, roughly 66 percent of YFO’s enrolled children come from low-income families. That number is slightly higher because of the pandemic, Babson-Haley said. As the virus spread throughout Maine, it was typically the financially well off families who were able to make other, private arrangements, or adjust work schedules to stay home. Families with smaller incomes had fewer options, she said.“Fewer options” can mean a variety of things, but often includes parents dropping children off at a neighbor’s house or a relative’s home who is willing to babysit, which only becomes problematic if the quality of that situation isn’t up to speed with what a child needs in order to thrive in this world today. That “quality” doesn’t need to be elaborate, Regional School Unit 9 Curriculum Coordinator Laura Columbia said, but does need to include some basics such as an emphasis on books, conversation and teaching independence when it comes to things such as tying shoes.“Those are the biggest things we look at as kids enter the public school system,” she said.According to Bailie, childcare facilities should strive for a “home like” environment, one that places a focus on nature-based and play-based learning. She teaches this to her students through a Planning Environments class.“What we want are authentic experiences in beautiful environments. We don’t see a lot of that,” Bailie said.Many students return from their practicum experiences, working and learning in real childcare facilities throughout Franklin County, with reports of a lack of quality, she said. Which is where the licensing comes in.The Maine Association for the Education of Young Children is not just for members, according to Williams, but strives to serve all those who work with young children in the state of Maine. That goal aside, MAEYC does encourage facilities to at least enroll in the “Quality Rating System”, which opens the doors to funding, training and other resources. Currently there are 450 members, Williams said.“There is no reason that someone working with children shouldn’t at least be on the Quality Rating System. It’s just a matter of looking critically at what you do every day with these little brains. 90 percent of brain development happens before Kindgeraten, so we have to be looking critically at this,” Babson-Haley said.The system looks at things as simple as offering a family handbook, or parent teacher conferences, but as the rating gets higher it takes into consideration the education level of lead teachers, and what a facility might be serving for lunch.“A high-quality program comes down to high-quality interactions between teachers and children. It’s about being brave enough to put yourself under that magnifying glass, letting people see that, and saying ‘look at what I’m doing. I’m doing it right’,” she said.Disclosure: The author of this article is related to one of the interviewees.