Jul 22, 2021

There wasn’t enough day care in the Upper Valley before the pandemic. Now it’s worse

ENFIELD — Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Bolander said she and her husband, Richard, had a “perfectly orchestrated system” in place to ensure their children had the care they needed so the parents could work.

But then in the spring of 2020, Kidsview Academy Preschool & Daycare in Enfield closed permanently, leaving their boys — then ages 3 and 16 months — without a place to go. They scrambled and eventually found spots at a child care center in White River Junction, but it wasn’t convenient for them coming from Canaan and working in Lebanon. In addition, COVID-19 protocols meant that one cold could result in several days of missed work to wait for test results and symptoms to subside, Sarah Bolander said.

The Bolanders, who are from the Midwest and didn’t have family in the Upper Valley to help with backup child care, moved to the Chicago suburbs in March of this year. There were several reasons for the move. They wanted to be closer to family, and Sarah, an occupational therapist, was looking for new job opportunities. But they also sought better access to child care.

Difficulty accessing child care “kind of put the nail in the coffin a little bit,” she said. “We can’t do this (and) be able to consistently work.”

The Upper Valley’s child care shortage is not new. Prior to the pandemic, the region was short about 2,000 child care spots, according to a 2018 report from the University of New Hampshire. But now, amid the reopening, the industry has fallen further behind. Child care, along with the housing shortage, is among the reasons that employers in the region say they are struggling to find employees.

Vermont Technical College in Randolph is allowing some workers to continue to work remotely, in part due to child care concerns, said Pat Moulton, the college’s president. But some positions, such as custodial jobs and student-facing roles, require someone be on campus, she said.

To fill jobs that require in-person work, “we’re struggling like everybody else,” Moulton said.

In some industries, such as restaurants and manufacturing, “you can’t do anything if people don’t show up,” she said.

Many Upper Valley child care providers are unable to fill the number of spots they are licensed for because they lack the staff to meet the required child-to-adult ratio. Some also have reduced their hours due to staffing issues.

The workforce situation at Ready Set Grow, a for-profit provider that operates child care centers in Claremont and Enfield, is acute, said Linda Tremblay, the executive director.

Pre-pandemic, the Claremont center, which is licensed for 125 children, had 95. Now, it is down to “the very sad number of 38,” she said. Ready Set Grow’s Enfield location, which opened in the former Kidsview Academy space last summer, is licensed for 51 children, but has just 21 children enrolled.

In both cases, Tremblay said, staffing is the restrictive factor.

“It’s a struggle, for real,” she said, speaking on a day she had to postpone an interview with a prospective employee because she had to fill in for a current employee who called in sick.

‘We can’t compete’

Wages and benefits are part of the challenge. Ready Set Grow has had to increase starting pay for assistants from a low of $9 before the pandemic to $14 now. Still, Tremblay said that’s not enough to keep up with larger centers that can offer both more money and benefits, she said.

“We can’t compete with that,” she said.

She’s also lost staff to other industries, pointing to employers such as Home Depot and Walmart, where she said employees can find less stressful work for more money. She doesn’t blame them. She is encouraging her college-age daughter to seek a different career.

“I’d like my old folks home to be paid for,” Tremblay said.

Still, Tremblay plans to stay put in spite of job offers for $5 more per hour.

“If I wasn’t so vested” in the work, she said. “It’s tempting.”

Workforce issues are less acute at the Child Care Center in Norwich, which is operating roughly at capacity with 63 children, said Lisa Sjostrom, the executive director. The nonprofit center offers a minimum wage of $15 per hour and benefits from having some work-study students from nearby Dartmouth College help out. The Child Care Center also benefits from owning its own building, and thereby not having to pay rent or a mortgage, and received COVID-19-related grants, she said.

Still, staffing is a challenge. Sjostrom said she finds she is competing with some public prekindergarten programs for teachers. In public schools, licensed preschool teachers can make more money and have summers off, Sjostrom said.

“To do it really, really well, there needs to be a different model,” she said.

Sjostrom applauded Vermont’s recent passage of Act 45, which increases the state subsidy for child care for families. But she said it wouldn’t necessarily help boost wages or other benefits for workers because it doesn’t increase the amount paid to the centers and instead shifts more of that cost burden from families to the state.

The act also creates three workforce development programs: scholarships for current early childhood providers, scholarships for prospective early childhood providers and student loan repayment assistance. It also directs the Joint Fiscal Office to evaluate economic impacts and potential funding mechanisms to adjust in Vermont’s regulated child care system.

Sustaining providers

More information is needed about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the child care industry, said Jess Carson, a research assistant professor at the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH, who wrote a 2018 report that found that the Upper Valley was short 2,000 child care slots.

Carson is now pursuing a follow-up study to examine the factors that helped to sustain child care providers in the Twin States.

She said she doesn’t need to complete the study to see that COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing workforce challenges across the child care industry. Parents are paying as much as they can — care can easily cost more than $1,000 a month per child — but early educators can make more money at what she described as “frankly easier jobs.”

Though COVID-19 has increased public recognition of the way that child care supports other economic sectors, Carson said, “The problem is not solved.”

Bob Haynes, former executive director of the Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., pointed to child care as “the biggest impediment to getting the workforce in full gear.”

Haynes is continuing to work on some special projects, including working to establish a new child care center in Randolph. It aims to make child care “more accessible to more people more easily,” he said.

In the meantime, Sarah Bolander found part-time work as an occupational therapist for a home care organization in Illinois, which she said gives her more flexibility than the job she had at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. The family has found part-time care for the boys, Ben and Zach, now 4 and 2.

“Someone’s got to be there to take a sick kid home,” she said. Being available for her children is “what’s most important. Working isn’t the most important thing.”

Click here to read this story on the Valley News website. 

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