Staffing shortages reach child care sector

  • A preschooler gets up on her toes to reach into her assigned cubby at a preschool center Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. Child care centers once operated under the promise that it would always be there when parents have to work. Now, each teacher resignation, coronavirus exposure, and day care center closure reveals an industry on the brink, with wide-reaching implications for an entire economy’s workforce. AP PHOTO/ELAINE THOMPSON

For the Gazette
Published: 12/21/2021 9:01:24 PM
Modified: 12/21/2021 9:01:09 PM

Many parents spend years saving for their child’s college tuition, but costs for a much earlier stage of their life may be much higher. Child care in Massachusetts currently costs more than in-state, four-year public college tuition, launching affordability to the forefront of labor and child care struggles during the pandemic.

Current numbers rank Massachusetts second in the country out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. for the most expensive annual infant child care at an average of $20,913. With a price tag between $4,747 and $6,505 higher than a four-year in-state program in the University of Massachusetts system, the state’s infant care for one child makes up approximately 22.7% of a median family’s income.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends affordable child care consist of no more than 7% of a family’s total income.

As child care costs remained high during the pandemic, some parents had to decide how best to care for their children under challenging circumstances.

Kristen Guichard, a Littleton parent of two toddlers, said she was fortunate to be able to afford care for her children, but said she knew of another person who was in an abusive relationship and could not afford other options.

“I have witnessed firsthand the struggles parents have to make, and it’s not just between working and staying at home,” Guichard said. “While my kids were attending the daycare of our choice and I went off to work each day knowing my kids were happy, safe, and nurtured, another person close to me and my community was struggling with a very difficult choice.”

Women have left the workforce at a high rate during the pandemic, with 3.5 million mothers in the United States leaving their jobs just between March and April of 2020. Mothers who left their jobs received paid or unpaid leave, experienced job cuts or decided to leave the workforce entirely.

In response to the economic impacts, legislative efforts aimed to support Massachusetts parents with careers in politics produced a bill allowing candidates to use campaign funds for child care costs. More broadly, potential legislation looks to reduce costs by raising public investment in the early education sector, using the federal 7% of total earnings recommendation to expand options for lower-income families by subsidizing excess costs.

The effects of the pandemic produced a legislative commission for recommendations on early education and care funding, researching current sources in Massachusetts and to look forward at opportunities aiming to “expand access to high quality early education and care programming” in the near future. The commission plans to take a close look at the historical impact of women in the workforce.

“We know that women have left the workforce at alarming rates and bear the brunt of child care responsibilities,” Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators Co-Chairs Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and Rep. Pat Haddad, D-Somerset, said in a statement. “This threatens the economic progress that women have made over the last several decades and must be at the center of all conversations about our economic recovery.”

The American Rescue Plan Act provided Massachusetts with $314 million for child care programs based on size and costs of staffing to cope with the economic difficulties of the pandemic. The state’s Department of Early Education and Care will distribute the funds regardless of location closures and prioritized programs in communities with a greater percentage of low-income families, offering up to six months of funding from July to December.

ARPA also provided funding for Head Start, the federally funded early education and care program, allocating $1 billion in the plan for local branches of Head Start and Early Head Start.

Massachusetts Head Start locations first closed their doors in March 2020 when the pandemic proved a threat to public safety, but began reopening in July at limited capacities. While some locations offered emergency child care during the shutdown, early education programs continued virtually for most users. Local Head Start branches offered an hour a day of virtual instruction and families received packets of materials and supplies to use for online activities.

Vaccinations contributed to the reopening of Head Start programs in-person, but staff shortages prevented a return to normalcy for some locations. In Massachusetts, about 19% of the program’s staff positions remain unfilled, said Michelle Haimowitz, executive director of Massachusetts Head Start Association.

“The only closures that exist are classroom-based closures for quarantine and staff shortages,” Haimowitz said. “The workforce crisis has just gotten worse and worse. It’s really coming to a head.”

With some former staff members concerned about potential exposure to COVID-19, local Head Start branches saw fewer employees return after locations reopened as vaccination numbers grew.

“We also had a really multigenerational workforce,” said Brett Westbrook, executive director of Berkshire County Head Start. “We had some staff that had worked here for a long time and identified as at-risk and did not return to work.”

The United States Department of Health and Human Services reports early childhood education affects cognitive and social development, benefitting children socially and opening the door to positive educational experiences later in life.

“One of the most important factors in a child’s success in grades kindergarten through 12th grade is whether they have access to high quality early education,” said Merry Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “The impacts of early education will follow students through college and their entire adult lives. Unfortunately, this is not the norm across the commonwealth.”

Madeleine Pearce writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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