Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
Kathy Maness has observed and engaged in education from many directions: as a teacher, executive, NLC President, Lexington (SC) City Councilmember and a parent. She knows how difficult Covid has been on early education, including young learners who had to start school without entering an actual classroom. That’s among the reasons Maness calls for local elected officials and communities to lift up their teachers to provide the support needed to build America’s early learning programs to full strength.
Chris Riback: Councilmember Maness, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kathy Maness: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
Chris Riback: You are the immediate past president of NLC. What did you see in early childhood learning during your time? You had that role during some of the most difficult times imaginable.
Kathy Maness: Right.
Chris Riback: What’s the state of early learning in our nation today?
Kathy Maness: Early learning is so important and during the pandemic, it played a huge part because many of our childcare centers were open for parents who had to work. A lot of parents were working from home, but we had essential employees who had to go into work. And thank heavens our early learning centers were open to provide the needed childcare for those parents.
Chris Riback: None of us wanted to go through that. Did you feel on some level that it took a crisis to raise some awareness around an area that I’m sure you already knew the criticality of?
Kathy Maness: Unfortunately, yes, it did. I have had wonderful childcare centers for my children and now my granddaughter. So I know the importance of quality early learning, but it did take this crisis for our community to realize. Hey, they could open. They were there to help families. They were there to help our communities. And most importantly, they were there for our young children during this time.
Chris Riback: You, of course, have an incredible vantage point both locally in Lexington, South Carolina but also because of your roles and your national involvement nationally. How would you characterize the range of what you see in our communities nationwide?
Kathy Maness: Well, I was the president of the National League of Cities during a very difficult time for our cities, towns, and villages across America. And we saw where communities were closing. We saw how our city halls, our town halls, had to do a balancing act to keep our employees there, not having shutdowns, deciding what we were going to do to keep our community safe.
Chris Riback: So many competing priorities.
Kathy Maness: That’s right. And our early childhood learning centers were there as a partner to us as local elected leaders to help try to make things normal when they really weren’t. And I am so thankful for our early learning centers and our early learning community, that they were there for us.
Chris Riback: Everyone grasping for just a sliver of normalcy.
Kathy Maness: Right.
Chris Riback: An hour of normalcy- [crosstalk].
Kathy Maness: Yes.
Chris Riback: Is what it felt like. Given what you’ve seen and given what you know from your experience, what guidance might you have for local elected officials who might be struggling with those tensions, the competing tensions of priorities, health needs, environmental needs, infrastructure needs, employment needs, education needs in their communities? Any guidance that you would give them around, from based on what you’ve seen, around how to prioritize or make sure that early learning stays part of the focus?
Kathy Maness: Early learning and education is very important to me. I have a master’s in early childhood education. I’m a former third grade teacher. That’s still considered an early childhood, and it is my passion. And it is important that to us, as local elected officials, to know that these young children are our future. They’re going to take my place one day. They’re going to be a Councilwoman or a Councilman in the town of Lexington, South Carolina. They are going to be the president of the National League of Cities. And we’ve got to be there early for them to help them learn, to help them grow, to encourage them. And that’s what we saw through our early learning centers during this pandemic.
Chris Riback: Thinking back to your previous self as a third grade teacher, and I’m willing to bet that once a third grade teacher, always a third grade teacher- [crosstalk].
Kathy Maness: Always. That’s right.
Chris Riback: I’m sure. But thinking back to you at that point, whatever point that was in your life, what would you say to teachers today, to caregivers today about the stresses that they are feeling and some who might be questioning, “Can I do this again another day?”
Kathy Maness: That is a great question for me because I left the third grade classroom and went to work for Palmetto State Teachers Association. I’m now the executive director of the largest professional association for teachers in South Carolina. I hear it every day and it breaks my heart the stresses that our teachers are under. Our children have experienced losing that year or- [crosstalk].
Chris Riback: Yes.
Kathy Maness: A year and a half.
Chris Riback: Such loss.
Kathy Maness: And it’s showing. When we started this year, we had to teach children how to be in a classroom again. And for our early learners, it’s the first time they’ve been in a classroom. So they missed that kindergarten year being in there where they were able to learn by play and to learn how to be a part of a community, part of a classroom. And it is hard. It is hard on our teachers now. And we, as local elected officials and as communities, need to lift our educators up, our early learning educators all the way through high school. We need to lift them up and let them know, “You are important, and we know that you are making a difference in the lives of children, starting with our early learners.”
Chris Riback: Making that difference every day.
Kathy Maness: Every day.
Chris Riback: What’s next for Lexington, South Carolina?
Kathy Maness: Well, we are coming back. We did a good job during the pandemic. We have a fabulous town administrator. I have a fabulous staff at our town and our council, so we’re coming back. We’re doing things for early learners. We’re redoing our beautiful park downtown, making it more friendly for families and young children. And that is so important that we’re doing that. But I just appreciate the cities, towns, and villages across America, as they worked very hard during this pandemic to respond, recover, and now we are rebuilding. And for many of us, it’s better than ever.
Chris Riback: It’s time to visit Lexington, South Carolina, isn’t it?
Kathy Maness: Please come to Lexington, South Carolina. I am so proud of my town.
Chris Riback: Well, I’ll go there for a number of reasons, including, I appreciate your having come to the studio.