Aug 26, 2021

Early childhood programs struggle to find staff

Early childhood educators are in short supply, and it’s not just the pandemic that’s to blame.

In recent months, child care centers and preschools across the state have been struggling to hire teachers.

Last week, mychamplainvalley.com reported that six Heartworks Preschool classrooms in Chittenden County were delaying opening because of staffing shortages, impacting more than 50 families. The report noted that Heartworks is looking to hire at least a dozen educators.

“It’s pretty rough right now. There’s a real shortage,” said Christy Swenson-Robertson, director of Capstone Head Start.

CHS serves around 300 children and families across three counties in Central Vermont through child care centers, elementary school pre-K classrooms, home visits and partnerships with private child care providers.

She said that staffing shortages have been a “long-standing issue” but the pandemic has made things worse, adding that some workers have left the field as result of the stress of the past 18 months.

Swenson-Robertson said she currently has five openings to fill, including two newly created positions, out of a staff of 77.

“The reason we don’t have very many openings is because we have a great retention rate,” she said, stating her program offers comprehensive benefits and paid time off.

Still, she has been unable to hire teachers in CHS’ four elementary school pre-K classrooms. As a result, she has had to change how services are delivered at those sites, with the school districts hiring the teachers and her staff providing other supports.

At the Rutland County Parent Child Center, executive director Mary Feldman is looking to fill nine full-time staff positions in early childhood and after-school programs.

RCPCC runs 10 programs around the county, including two early education sites in Rutland and Brandon.

Despite being licensed to serve 59 children, Feldman said she has been unable to enroll to capacity.

A $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow RCPCC to increase capacity and add another three classrooms by the spring, but Feldman said she needs more staff to do so.

Earlier this year, RCPCC’s Brandon site had to close down for a month because of staffing issues. Now, reopened, it’s still unable to open its toddler classroom and its pre-K classroom is maxed out until additional teachers are hired.

RCPCC’s Rutland site, meanwhile, is at capacity and cannot open a second classroom because there is no teacher to run it.

As a result, both sites currently have waiting lists.

Burnout is also contributing to shortages.

Feldman said the pandemic has taken its toll on workers’ mental health.

“The parent-child center was completely vital during the pandemic. We provided 47,000 meals a month to our Rutland County community members,” said Feldman. “We were on the front lines with no virtual child care taking place.”

Moreover, Swenson-Robertson noted that more children now enter programs with behavioral issues — as many as 10 out of 20 students in a given classroom, she said.

“The stress level of working with young children these days — a lot more of them have a trauma history, which makes it more challenging work than it used to be,” she said.

Feldman said the problem is not endemic to Vermont.

“It’s a nationwide crisis,” she said. “There are hiring signs that can be seen from the East Coast to the West Coast.”

According to researchers who compiled the “2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index” published by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, child care workers are “woefully underpaid and overlooked.”

The report, which was released in February and based on 2019 pre-pandemic data, analyzes state-level data on poverty rates, wage gaps, qualifications, workforce data and more.

It found that early childhood educators nationally earned, on average, $11.65 an hour. The lowest median hourly wage was reported in Mississippi ($8.94); the highest was in Washington, D.C. ($15.36.).

In Vermont, the report estimated that 2,880 people were members of the early childhood teaching workforce, serving the state’s approximately 35,000 children ages 0-5.

The median wage for a preschool teacher in Vermont in 2019 was $16.48 an hour, up 8% from 2017. For a child care worker, it was $13.72, up 3%.

The report also found that Vermont early educators with a bachelor’s degree are paid 17% less than K-8 public school teachers.

Consequently, the poverty rate for early educators in the state was almost 11% — more than 13 times higher than it was for K-8 teachers (0.8%).

An analysis of the report conducted by EdSurge stated, for single child care workers with no children, Vermont was one of only 10 states in the U.S. where median child care worker wages were equal to or more than the living wage for that state.

Single child care workers with at least one child did not earn a living wage in any state.

“This is an underfunded field. That’s the real story,” said Feldman. “It’s not a valued profession. There isn’t a nationwide hiring crisis for jobs that pay above $20 an hour. There isn’t. The crisis is really mainly in the low-paid jobs.”

Feldman said the field has professional requirements but isn’t funded for professionals — even with a master’s degree in early childhood education, teachers earn less than $20 an hour.

“If I were able to advertise tomorrow $25 an hour or $20 an hour for an early childhood education teacher, I would have many more responses to my ads than I have right now,” she said.

Swenson-Robertson said the current funding model simply doesn’t work.

She explained that the amount of money families pay to enroll their kids in a program, even when combined with child care subsidies, isn’t enough cover overheard and pay teachers what they deserve.

“There’s no way that those early childhood educators can be paid at a rate that makes sense for them to get a bachelor’s degree,” she said.

The solution, for Swenson-Robertson, is to either create more opportunities for child care workers to get degrees without accruing debt or overhaul the subsidy model entirely.

Feldman pointed to the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Vermont scholarship program as a valuable asset. The program provides child care workers with debt-free access to educational opportunities. She said she encourages all RCPCC staff looking to complete their education to apply for it.

But she said it’s not enough.

Feldman argued that more money needs to pass directly to organizations like RCPCC to provide workers with health insurance and a living wage. She said it would be a good use of all the federal relief funds that have been flowing into the state.

“The billion dollars sitting at the state, give it to the people who were providing care for these families … throughout the pandemic. Pass it through, to help professionalize the field, directly to the centers, because we don’t get enough funding for the work we’re doing.”

She believes it’s an investment worth making.

“This is the future workforce of Vermont, are these kids right now. What we do with their brains between now and the age of 5 is the future of Vermont’s workforce.”

Click here to read this story on the Rutland Herald website.

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