‘Who’s going to watch their children?’: Child care staffing shortage significantly cutting access

Published 12:10 am Sunday, February 6, 2022

SALISBURY — Local child care centers are facing staffing shortages, long waitlists, aid that will run out and no immediate solution to provide enough slots for the number of children who need care.

The most recent problems started in March 2020 when centers closed and significantly cut the number of children they were serving as more kids were kept home.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says the number of child care sites has been declining for several years, but the number of employees remained relatively steady until mid 2020 — when the number of workers began declining from more than 40,000 to about 37,000.

Partners in Learning furloughed 75% of its employees in 2020. They collected enhanced unemployment, and the nonprofit gradually brought back staff, but by then some had already moved on. Executive Director Norma Honeycutt said PIL has not been able to completely rebuild its staff since.

Cornerstone Child Development Center, the largest child care provider in the county with five locations, avoided furloughing employees and instead used the period of low enrollment for lesson planning and deep cleaning among other alternate tasks.

Cornerstone CDC Executive Director Michelle Macon said the organization wanted to protect its workers, but it has still experienced trouble with staffing. Cornerstone opened its China Grove center in March 2020, right before restrictions and lockdowns began. 

Increasing wages in other jobs have tamped down the ability of centers to provide competitive wages. One problem is the centers can’t afford to push wages higher. Many are nonprofits and try to provide affordable care. If care is too expensive, it’s not viable for parents to enroll their kids.

Providers are also having problems with the background check process. Several centers told the Post it can take more than a month to get an employee through the background check system required to hire child care workers. By the time a prospective employee is fingerprinted and cleared they may have found another job.

Child care is heavily regulated and follows ratios for adults to children. That’s why lower staffing levels mean centers can not care for as many children.

St. John’s Child Development Center Executive Director Paula Levianu said the center could care for about 160-170 children before the pandemic, but now the center can only take about 110.

Partners in learning has rebuilt most of its capacity and is caring for 190 students between its two sites, down from 240 pre-pandemic.

Cornerstone currently serves 260 children, but it could serve 400 if the organization was staffed to capacity. All five of Cornerstone’s centers have waitlists — a situation that would persist even if they were staffed to capacity.

Levianu could not give an exact number for St. John’s waitlist, but the forecast given to parents asking about care is at least three months before any spots are available. The center gets two to three calls a day, and sometimes parents beg for spots for their children.

“It’s extensive in all the age levels, from infants to 4 and 5-year-olds,” Levianu said.

Partners in Learning had a waitlist of more than 300 children at the beginning of 2021. Now, that waitlist has more than 500 children on it.

South Rowan Academy of Child Development Director Marissa Donaldson said the academy has about 100 children and the center has about 75 kids in preschool.

Donaldson said the South Rowan center typically has a full waitlist, but the list has grown and the center gets calls every day. Some parents don’t opt to put their children on the waitlist because they need care urgently.

“You never know because we could start calling people back on our waitlist and they never need care. So, we never know how quickly we’re going to go through it, but typically if a parent needs urgent care and they hear we have a waitlist, they don’t put their child on it,” Donaldson said.

When Courtney Bost started as program coordinator for First United Methodist’s Child Development Center in July 2020, enrollment was low, only about a dozen children at the center with a capacity for 39. At the time, the center was able to fill any enrollments immediately.

Fast forward to 2022, and for the first time the center has a waiting list. Bost said the center also needs staff to close the center each day.

“I have placed ads out to recruit, but the response is just not what I’m in need of,” Bost said.

The shortage of care places pressure on families. Shanekwa Long said she has been wait-listed by three centers while trying to get child care for her three children. Long said she was told centers did not have enough staff, and a small home daycare she tried was completely full.

Long said she is ready to get back to work after having twins, but not having child care is keeping her home.

“I’m making a way, but it is affecting me,” Long said.

Is there a fix?

Some directors point to government intervention as a potential fix.

“I think it’s going to have to change at the federal level somehow,” Levianu said.

She said more federal child care subsidies are needed. There is some recognition in Washington, D.C., but there’s been no major progress on the issue lately. Bills supporting more child care spending and universal prekindergarten were left in limbo in late 2021.

Honeycutt said PIL raised its wages by $3-5 per person, cut a few hours out of employee work weeks but pays them for a full 40 hours and added bonuses. Honeycutt said those measures stopped turnover, but it’s still difficult to recruit new employees. The only reason PIL can afford these measures is because of state child care stabilization grants, which expire in 18 months.

“Our hope is to be able to figure out what to do in 18 months because you can not raise the prices,” Honeycutt said. “Parents cannot afford it.”

Macon said grants help increase staff pay and give bonuses, but the aid needs to continue past 2023.

She said the aid hasn’t stopped employees from choosing to leave the profession for personal reasons such as wanting a job with lower stress.

Honeycutt pointed to measures such as universal pre-k and more government financial support to keep child care feasible. She pointed out there have been a litany of large employers coming to Rowan County, including a project expected to create 5,100 full- and part-time jobs in China Grove.

“The truth is, who’s going to watch their children?” Honeycutt said.

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About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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