Early child care centers across Connecticut’s Northwest Corner and in eastern Dutchess County, N.Y., tell a common story: An emerging staffing shortage underscores challenges both old and new in the industry.
From a dearth of applicants to unreliable and sporadic state and federal funding, the current picture is of a chronically undervalued industry that fights hard to provide crucial services to underserved populations.
Providing both before- and after-school care to children ages 0-6, early child care centers occupy a challenging midway point between parents and the education system. They aim to afford parents the flexibility to work the jobs they need to support the family while educating children with social and developmental skills critical to their success in school.
“The reality [is that] we’re not just babysitters. We’re educators who help children get ready to go to school,” said Tonya Roussis, director of Housatonic Child Care Center in Salisbury.
In fact, according to Fran Chapell, executive director of Canaan Child Care Center: “It’s more like social work than child care. We also do food, quality lunches, make sure the children have clothing, boots, hats, mittens.”
Recently, however, these organizations have been hit with a staffing shortage that has left them unable to serve the number of families their capacities should allow.
“[It] started after we came back after COVID. Before COVID, when I was looking for people, I would get applications left and right,” said Roussis. “Then COVID happened, we shut down [for a while], then I lost some teachers because they didn’t want to come back and work in that environment. And from there, the past two years, it’s just been really hard to find people.”
This translates to child care centers like Housatonic and Canaan Child Care operating under capacity, serving fewer families than their facilities can accommodate. Housatonic Child Care Center, Roussis said, has capacity for 56 children — right now it’s only able to take on 40. This, coupled with the fact that regionally there is a higher demand for child care than there are centers with openings, means that waiting lists are longer, and families are turned away.
“I do have spaces in my toddler room, but I fear filling them with not being able to hire somebody because of the [state mandated] one-to-four teacher-child ratio. I’ve kept those rooms low in case we can’t find a teacher … and I do have a wait list.”
Figuring out what exactly has caused this staffing shortage, however, has proven elusive to Roussis.
“I really can’t figure it out. I’m not sure if it’s the pay, the environment, the job itself. The applicants that do come in, they’re satisfied with what we start them out with. I’m a part of this group of directors that gets together every month, and we all have the same issue. We’re all boggled by it, by the fact that we can’t find teachers. It’s not just us, it’s across the board everywhere.”
According to Jeanne Wagner, executive director of the Child Care Council of Dutchess and Putnam, Inc., this systemic lack of applicants is occurring across Dutchess County as well. Wagner’s organization is the New York State designated Child Care Resource and Referral agency for both Dutchess and Putnam counties, and over an 18-month period, her organization had difficulty finding available openings, particularly for infant and toddler care.
But to Wagner, an element of this puzzle comes down to something simple.
“Money. Early childhood people should be paid on the level of public school teachers, and they aren’t at all. Affordable housing is a problem. Public transportation enters into it too.”
Longstanding funding woes
The issue of funding is a familiar one to Chapell who, having worked in the early child care industry for more than 20 years, has witnessed the ways that funding rises and falls.
“[At Canaan Child Care Center] we were getting $8,000 a year for 15 years [from the town], and then it was gone. And we were like ‘Whoa, what are we gonna do?’ But you know, Canaan is a low-income town and they just don’t have it in their budget.”
According to both Roussis and Chapell, this sort of funding unreliability plagues the industry, which makes it difficult to compensate their teachers and workers at the levels they’d want to, and that will retain them in the long-term.
A brief bright spot, however, came during the pandemic in the form of stopgap funding made available for child care centers through national and state programs. For Chapell, it allowed her to retain her staff and even make some much-needed improvements.
“Our playground before was basically just mud with a fence around it. During the pandemic, believe it or not, I was able to ask for a climber, and I got the funds for it.”
Such pandemic-era funding, however, has either dried up or is set to dry up soon. Once those funds are gone, directors like Chapell are left wondering how to move forward.
“The uncertainty is what makes you nervous. Right now I’ve got great staff and I’m able to pay them, but as soon as this money goes away — I’m looking at my board and saying: ‘OK, what’s our strategic plan? What are we gonna do to keep our staff?’ It’s a worry — but I’ve been there before. I’ve been in child care a long time, it’s always a struggle.”
Glimmers of hope in an embattled industry
A glimmer of hope, however, has taken the shape of an informal network of early child care center directors that formed during the pandemic in Connecticut’s Region One School District. The network was, according to Chapell, crucial to their ability to stay afloat.
“We’ve been fighting hard, all the directors. We call ourselves the Northwest Child Care Collaborative, all the child care centers in the region. We work together to help each other.
“Because it’s for the families, and you just want to do what you can, play your part in the communities, to keep all of it going.”
The Northwest Child Care Collaborative’s monthly meetings are organized by the Middlesex Coalition for Children, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the lives of children in Connecticut’s Middlesex County, and they count seven regional child care centers as members.
“It’s been super helpful. We got together to support each other, to get on the same page in terms of our pandemic policies and to try to come up with solutions,” Roussis said. “Anything we can do to support each other, to get through what we’re going through. More times than not, we’ve had the same situations in common. It’s a great group of women.”
This form of self-advocacy is one that Wagner sees occurring both in Dutchess County and on a national level, and as having the potential to make positive changes in the industry.
For Chapell, such efforts raise the hope that, someday, the landscape of early child care might structurally improve for the better.
“You look at other countries that do [early child care] so well, and it’s like, why aren’t we doing this? There are different child care alliances that are looking at those models and saying, how can we make this work for us?”
But for now, Chapell knows what has to be done.
“You need to be scrappy. We have to constantly fundraise, constantly write grants. You really have to look anywhere and everywhere and say, who can help us? Just in order to make this place a quality center where the goal is for parents to be able to go to work and not have to worry about where their children are.”