Child care providers facing staffing shortages worsened by the pandemic

The shortages are leading to longer waitlists and more classrooms sitting empty with no teachers to staff them.
Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 11:28 PM CDT
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NEW GLARUS, Wis. (WMTV) - Child care providers across Wisconsin are facing a workforce shortage. As more parents go back to work, providers are struggling to hire enough staff to accommodate rising numbers of families seeking child care.

According to surveys conducted by Community Coordinated Child Care (4C), a nonprofit which provides support for child care, 19% of child care centers in Dane County reported leaving entire classrooms empty because they could not hire the teachers to staff them. In Rock County, that number is even higher at 26%.

Providers said staffing shortage existed pre-COVID but during the pandemic, many teachers left over safety concerns, creating even more vacancies to fill.

Brooke Skidmore co-owns The Growing Tree Child Care Center in New Glarus with her brother. Three of her rooms have been empty for more than a year, up from just one empty room before the pandemic. Some of the space has been converted to storage for now.

“It would have been full of kids and toys and games,” she said of one room, adding that the baby rooms were the first to shut down.

There are plenty of kids who could fill those rooms. Skidmore said she has families on her waitlist that have been waiting since 2019.

“I am almost every day, if not a couple times a day, turning away parents that are looking for child care,” she explained.

This is one of 3 rooms at The Growing Tree Child Care Center in New Glarus that has been vacant during the pandemic, due...

Posted by Sanika Bhargaw NBC15 on Monday, July 19, 2021

The problem is not enough teachers to staff those empty rooms. For elementary school age children, Skidmore said the ideal ration is one teacher for every 10 children. For very young kids, the ratio is one to four.

“I’m trying to recruit teachers but it’s really difficult because of the wages,” Skidmore said.

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley, The median hourly wage for a child care worker in Wisconsin is $10.66. The average starting wage for a lead teacher in Green County, where Skidmore’s child care center is, is $11.54. Skidmore added child care providers are also unable to offer benefits for their employees.

This has always made finding staff a challenge, but Skidmore explained the pandemic added one more problem.

“I lost several teachers just because they don’t want to be in an area where children cannot social distance and you’re being sneezed on,” she said.

Skidmore is far from the only child care provider struggling.

“Child care as an industry is in a crisis mode everywhere,” said Jody Bartnick, executive director of 4C.

According to 4C surveys, 33 percent of Green County child care providers have empty classrooms because they cannot find enough teachers. 50 percent have vacancies in their program, also a result of staffing shortages.

“We’re seeing individuals in the workforce leave to obtain jobs in other industries,” Bartnick said, echoing Skidmore’s explanation of low wages and lack of benefits.

Both Bartnick and Skidmore said their industry is undervalued, and what they need is more support from the state. Right now, Skidmore said child care providers get no funding from the state and have to rely entirely on federal money.

“So often, we are looked upon as babysitters instead of child care and education,” she said.

Bartnick added it is really important to fund quality child care and make it affordable and accessible for all because of how important a child’s early years are for development.

“It’s all cognitive brain development and it is critical that sets the tone for the future of their success,” she said.

During the pandemic, Skidmore said she used CARES Act money to raise the wages of her staff, which helped temporarily, especially when they were accepting less kids due to COVID restrictions. However, she said that will not solve the staffing problems in the long run, and child care providers need more financial support.

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