The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are like no other in our lifetimes. It has impacted lives and our livelihoods in every corner of Maine. As we all work to persevere and recover cautiously and safely, the virus has left dire consequences in its wake that will impact our families and communities for years to come. 

We now know that state and local governments will face extremely difficult budget challenges, particularly in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and likely for many years into the future. As law enforcement leaders, we are the first to tell you that essential services connected to public safety and emergency response must continue, as must our health care and medical research responses.

But there’s another set of essential services that we must preserve — for the sake of long-term public safety, as well as for the sake of Maine’s kids: early childhood programs.

We encourage policymakers to put early childhood programs at the top of their priority lists. Maine law enforcement has long supported early childhood education investments because we know from our own experience what decades of research have proven: high-quality early care and education for our youngest and most vulnerable children can dramatically reduce future crime and keep our communities safe. A recent brief from Fight Crime: Invest In Kids highlights that at-risk children who attend quality preschool are more likely to succeed in school, graduate, and avoid becoming involved in crime. 

In order to preserve this system, all options must be on the table, including both flexibility for states for the use of already granted federal relief funding, and additional aid from the federal government.

If we are unable to protect early childhood programs in the wake of the COVID-19 destruction, Maine’s already fragile system could very well be hollowed out in ways that will take years to reconstruct. 

Two factors make early learning especially vulnerable.

First, high-quality early childhood education requires highly qualified teachers. However, even before the pandemic, insufficient pay rates caused high levels of attrition. While deemed essential by our governor, many child care providers found they could not both do their jobs to support child care needed for other essential workers and simultaneously take care of their own families.

The risk of additional funding cuts in the short or longer term could dramatically diminish the number of quality child care, Head Start, and pre-K slots available for the children of working parents. That would create a domino effect that would subject nearly every sector of our economy to increased strain.  If parents cannot find child care, they cannot work.

Second, our children don’t stop growing up just because their early learning programs go away. Every year of depleted programs creates another group of young children who miss out on the crucial brain-development benefits of quality early childhood education. If our commitment to high-quality early childhood education falters, we run the risk of creating a “lost generation” of children who were not able to capitalize on this most rapid period of social, emotional and cognitive learning in their lives.

In recent years, Maine lawmakers have taken bipartisan action to grow the availability of high-quality early learning programs, and, pre-COVID-19, they were on the verge of doing more to shore up our already fragile early learning system. They unified over their common, powerful belief that high-quality early learning should be available to more Maine children and families.

We cannot afford to retreat from effective programs that also make long-term economic sense. Here, at this tipping point, the consequences of decisions made in the next weeks and months will potentially reverberate for decades.

It is our hope that the relevant federal agencies will give Maine and other states the flexibility that all four of our Members of Congress are asking for in the COVID-19 relief fund approved last month, and then ensure that future relief will support critical state and local programs.

We know that government, at all levels, must work together to weather this storm. In doing so, we should put the health and well-being of our families, particularly the youngest among us, front and center.

Jared Mills is Augusta chief of police and Ken Mason is Kennebec County sheriff.

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