Coronavirus child care

Daycare teacher Elisabeth Valley helps Kayden Blackler with his art project at social distance daycare at the Boys & Girls Club in Concord last May.

At Granite Start Early Learning Center in Nashua, owner Joyce Goodwin said the phone hardly stops ringing as families hunt desperately for child care. She gets calls every day from parents looking for a place to put their children as they return to work, and weekend tours of the center are reliably full.

Goodwin has the space to take on another 10 to 12 children — but only if she could hire three more teachers.

“You can’t find help, never mind qualified help,” Goodwin said. She has placed help-wanted ads on hiring websites and social media, she said, but nobody bites.

Child care is a notoriously low-paying field, but state licensing requirements mean workers have to have specialized training — even a four-year degree for some jobs.

Goodwin is one of hundreds of child care business owners struggling to hire in New Hampshire even as they are flooded with queries from families who need care.

Federal stimulus dollars shored up child care businesses and prevented a wave of closures during the worst days of the coronavirus crisis while parents kept their children home. But the pandemic also accelerated child care’s workforce crisis. Over the past year, hundreds of trained child care workers have left the field in search of higher-paying work and jobs that feel less dangerous in a pandemic.

Because of strict limits on how many children a care worker can tend to at once, a shortage of staff means a shortage of spaces for the children of New Hampshire’s working families.

Seats kept vacant

Earlier this month, Early Learning NH, an advocacy group for child care providers, surveyed day care providers about their workforce needs.

“We’d been hearing it anecdotally, people saying they have wait lists,” said Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning NH, but this was the first time the group has been able to measure the scope of the problem.

The group received responses from 196 business owners, who together own about 40% of the 700 licensed day cares in the state.

Those owners could accommodate almost 2,300 more children day care — if only they could hire enough staff. The day care centers surveyed would need to hire 643 more people to open those seats to children.

Extrapolating that number across all day care providers, about 6,000 day care seats remain empty because of staff shortages — a figure supported by a March state report on barriers to post-pandemic economic recovery.

That means one in eight of the state’s 46,000 licensed child care seats must remain empty.

New workers are not coming into the system to help fill the gap.

When child care centers look to hire, they often get workers from other centers, said Marianne Barter, director of Merrimack Valley Day Care Services.

“We basically steal from each other all the time,” Barter said.

Part of the issue, Barter said, is that fewer people are training for careers in child care and early-childhood education.

“Everyone who is trained is employed,” Barter said.

There are fewer opportunities for training or exposure to the field in the state than even five years ago.

New Hampshire’s career and technical education schools no longer offer early-childhood education, Barter said — the only available program for high schoolers is in Bradford, Vt. New Hampshire’s community colleges and most of the state’s four-year school have early-education certificates and majors, but Plymouth State University’s education department no longer offers an early-childhood track.

The workforce effect

Lack of child care likely will hold back the economy’s recovery from COVID-19.

“When child care can’t hire a workforce, it affects all the other workforces,” Cowell said. “That was something that became really evident during COVID.”

Cowell wonders whether federal boosts in unemployment benefits are discouraging care workers from accepting the low-paying jobs — especially people who worry about their health during the pandemic.

But even after the pandemic ends and the extra unemployment payments stop coming, Cowell wonders whether people will want to enter a low-paying field.

For a child care business, Cowell said, somewhere between 80% and 90% of the expense is staff, and tuition from parents makes up 80% to 100% of a business’ revenue. The way the system is set up today, the only way to raise teacher pay would be to charge parents more, Cowell said.

“You can’t just go to parents and say pay us a whole lot more. They don’t have it,” Cowell said, repeating a mantra that is becoming common in child care circles: “Teachers can’t afford to stay, parents can’t afford to pay — there’s got to be a better way.”

At Granite Start in Nashua, Goodwin said she sometimes wonders how parents can afford to keep their children in care.

“We try to keep tuition as low as we can,” Goodwin said, but a family with three children in care would pay about $3,000 a month. Tuition is high, but Goodwin said she still can’t pay her teachers as much as she would like. With the mandatory children-to-teacher ratio, the cost of staff adds up quickly.

Because most child care centers rely entirely on tuition for income, there is no way to shield families from the cost of care and no one to share the burden.

Cowell hopes that eventually child care will become something everyone chips in for, like schools. Despite a growing teacher shortage, in part because of low pay, teachers of older children still earn more than their peers in pre-kindergarten.

“Imagine if the public schools were only funded by the parents who used it,” Cowell said. “What would they be able to pay their teachers?”

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