Mia Naula, 3, left, Mini Santosh, child care director, and Ana Clara Goncalves, 4, play with building toys at Action Early Learning Center in Danbury. "We are very systematically devalued, underinvested," Santosh said, who has been an early childhood educator for three decades. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Child care providers across the state are still operating well below capacity more than two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — a threat to the sector’s overall viability and a vexing source of uncertainty for parents trying to return to work and employers looking for help.

A new report from the Connecticut Association for Human Services estimates that public and private child care centers in Connecticut are serving 24,000 fewer children than they were before the pandemic. Across the wider group of home-based and center-based programs CAHS surveyed for the report, which serve a range of children from infant to school-aged, enrollment was at about 75% of capacity as of April of this year.

Liz Fraser, policy director for CAHS and author of the report, attributed the decline to staffing shortages.

“We’re serving fewer kids, and it’s not because fewer families need care — it’s that they can’t find the staff to fill the positions,” she said. 

Earnings for child care teachers are low, and as wages rise in other sectors, many are choosing to leave the profession. Without those teachers, child care providers can’t add students because they have to meet mandated child-to-teacher ratios. Fraser said that’s what has led to the empty classrooms and reduced slots child care providers reported in CAHS’s survey.

“People are on waiting lists, but they can’t fill the positions,” she said.

The survey, conducted in April among more than 200 Connecticut-based providers, provides a snapshot of an industry that’s critical to economic recovery from the pandemic. The report is slated to be published this week.

Connecticut still hasn’t recovered all of the jobs lost at the height of the pandemic recession. And economists have attributed weaker labor market participation nationally, particularly among women, in part to a lack of available child care.

More money is coming

During the 2022 state legislative session, the General Assembly approved more than $100 million in funding for the child care sector. That will include up to $30 million for some preschool programs, $15 million to support construction and renovations to child care facilities, $25 million toward expanding infant-toddler programs and $6 million toward workforce development programs to boost staffing in the industry. 

Those programs are in the beginning stages, following the start of the fiscal year July 1. The Office of Early Childhood has until August 1 to plan the distribution of additional funds aimed at raising teacher compensation.

The state funding comes as OEC is wrapping up distribution of some $120 million in federal money, which went toward “stabilizing” the sector via grants to roughly 2,000 child care centers and 2,000 in-home providers across the state. That allowed those providers to keep their doors open, despite waves of the virus and corresponding declines in enrollment and staffing. Another portion of the federal relief dollars is slated to fund staffing networks that will provide backup for in-home child care providers. 

The federal funding provided a level of support the industry hadn’t seen in years, Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye said.

“We’ve definitely lost some capacity, but it’s interesting — with the stabilization money, they lost less capacity in the past two years than we did in the two years prior,” she said.

Bye said it often surprises people to hear that. “But child care has been so fragile for so long. To get $120 million injected into an industry can help stabilize things more than I think people expected it to,” she said. 

Federal American Rescue Plan money has stabilized child care providers throughout the country. Even so, 80% of child care centers nationally remain understaffed, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

In Connecticut, state funding will now take over that stabilizing role.

But Fraser said it concerns her that the millions of dollars lawmakers approved might serve only to maintain the status quo, rather than fixing what’s broken.

“We need to figure out in Connecticut what we can do to not only just stabilize the field for a year at a time but to really make a difference and do it boldly,” she said. 

As child care businesses wait on the state grants and teacher raises to kick in, the threat of staff departures looms large.

Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, who provided assistance on the CAHS report, said one thing that jumped out at him in the survey responses were the “morale and mental health issues” that respondents raised.

“Here you are being told you’re an essential worker, knowing that you’re going to work with people who aren’t vaccinated, who can’t wear masks very well … So you have that concern every day,” Gay said. “Then, you know, some of your coworkers start leaving for other jobs … If you’re a teacher, and your assistant teacher leaves for a job that pays more than you’re getting, that’s a real demoralizing kind of thing.”

For program directors, those challenges are layered on top of other responsibilities, Gay said: balancing the books when the business is running out of money; finding people to cover when staff call in sick; and recruiting new staff amid ongoing uncertainty.

“That takes its toll,” he said.

Erica is CT Mirror's first-ever Economic Development Reporter. Before joining CT Mirror in August 2021 Erica was a writer / producer for public radio’s Marketplace, and was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal for seven years, first as a general assignment / regional economy reporter and then as a supply chain reporter covering freight, trade, and e-commerce. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania with a degree in economics and a concentration in Latin American studies, and received a master’s in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California.