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Childcare providers struggle to attract new staff, keep classrooms open

Adults work with children
Teachers at the Sowing Seeds Academy in Henrico County work with children. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated staffing shortages at childcare centers across the country, including in Virginia. Bridget Taylor, who owns and operates two childcare centers in Henrico County called Sowing Seeds Academy, has been in the classroom herself recently, relieving teachers when they go on breaks.

“We are stretched to our limit,” Taylor said.

She’s had some luck recruiting retirees passionate about kids, like Regina Roots. After retiring from a job at Nabisco in 2017, Roots started volunteering at Woodville Elementary in Richmond before accepting a teaching position at Sowing Seeds Academy.

“​​I'm a mother and I have six grandchildren, so I'm no stranger to it,” said Roots. Sandra White, who joined Sowing Seeds Academy after retiring from Richmond Public Schools last year, also has six grandchildren and loves working with kids.

“I couldn’t sit at home. I had to find something to do,” said White, who is on track to become a director at one of the two centers. “This is not a job for me because I love what I do. I see myself working here until they wheel me up out of here.”  

Person puts food onto plates
Sandra White prepares food for lunch at the Sowing Seeds Academy in Henrico. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Still, Taylor has multiple teacher openings at both locations. She tries to pay all teachers between $11 and $12 an hour, depending on their experience, but she says she simply can’t compete with fast-food restaurants paying $20 an hour.

“Parents don't want their tuition but so high, so you can't pay teachers $16 an hour,” Taylor said. “You're trying to keep the cost down for parents to be able to afford childcare as well as pay teachers. So it's difficult, it's very difficult.”

Until Taylor fills those open positions, she worries about what could happen if there’s another COVID-19 outbreak. Ideally, Taylor says, employees shouldn’t be moving between classrooms. 

But because she’s short-staffed, that hasn’t always been possible. So when she had a COVID-19 outbreak in August, she had to shut down the entire center — instead of just a couple of classrooms — for a week.

“So I'm the problem right now because I am the one traveling room to room when we’re trying to stop that because of the pandemic,” Taylor said.

Person with child on knee
Bridget Taylor, who runs the Sowing Seeds Academy, with a child on her knee. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

There were a total of 15 cases linked to the center’s August outbreak, according to a VDH dashboard. It wasn’t until a parent notified Taylor that her kids had tested positive for COVID-19 that Taylor ordered testing for students and staff and the outbreak was realized.

“The kids were really non-symptomatic. They were jumping, playing, going on field trips. We had really no way of knowing,” Taylor said. “We take temperature checks every day, and they weren't even having temperatures. So that was the scary thing.”

She also won’t be able to open more classrooms and enroll about 20 students on her waiting list without more staff. That’s a trend statewide, according to Kim Hulcher, executive director of the Virginia Childcare Association.

“We're not able to fill the positions that we need to open the classrooms,” Hulcher said. “So what we're seeing is, basically, the childcare industry collapsing from the inside, meaning they're closing down classrooms, one at a time due to a lack of staff availability in the classroom.”

Virginia recently announced that it expects pre-K enrollment to set a new record this fall. But Hulcher worries that may not happen, as many childcare centers that run pre-K programs can’t enroll more students because of staffing problems.

Hulcher says the staffing problem predates COVID. A recent study of about 1,000 Virginia child care teachers found that nearly 1 in 4 teachers left their child care center during an eight-month period prior to the pandemic. Turnover rates were highest among newer teachers and teachers who earned the lowest wages.

Children seated
Children seated at the Sowing Seeds Academy in Henrico County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Earlier this month, the Virginia Childcare Association sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam asking him to support this essential service by directing more relief funds to help providers recruit and retain employees in the short term and invest in more long-term solutions.

“The providers really need financial support, and they needed it yesterday,” Hulcher said. “And for many of them, they are still in crisis.”

COVID-19 relief funds have helped businesses like Rainbow Riders Childcare in Blacksburg stay afloat, says administrator Kristi Synder. She’s been giving staff incremental raises and bonuses that were only possible with extra subsidies. Synder says they recently bumped pay for qualified staff with a bachelor’s degree up to $14.50 an hour.

“The only way we can afford that is the subsidies we've gotten due to COVID,” Synder said.

Snyder said while she’s a big proponent for increasing the minimum wage, she’s not sure how she’s going to afford it. In January, the state minimum wage will increase to $11 an hour on its way to $15 an hour by 2026. Without more federal and state support, she worries her business will go under.

The state has offered to match $500 sign-on bonuses from employers, including childcare providers, willing to pay new staff $15 an hour. But so far, only $28,000 has been distributed to help onboard 54 childcare workers across eight childcare centers in Northern Virginia. Virginia Secretary of Labor Megan Healey said they’re still working on getting the funding out.

Snyder says while $15 an hour for new employees might work in Northern Virginia, it won’t work for her in Blacksburg right now.

“In rural communities, getting up to that level is a huge step for a lot of programs,” Snyder said. 

“We can't just stand by and let the childcare industry collapse. And I'm telling you, it's on the verge.”