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Child care crisis: Teachers love kids, but ‘need to be able to sustain ourselves’

(L-R) Angela Aquilizan, Davina Woods and Diane Barsotti are all educators struggling to rebuild their workforces post-COVID. (Courtesy of Angela Aquilizan, Davina Woods and Diane Barsotti)
(L-R) Angela Aquilizan, Davina Woods and Diane Barsotti are all educators struggling to rebuild their workforces post-COVID. (Courtesy of Angela Aquilizan, Davina Woods and Diane Barsotti)

The child care industry took a sharp hit in the early days of the pandemic, losing about a third of its workforce. When families stayed home in 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, centers faced layoffs.

Three years later, the labor force has yet to fully recover.

That means working parents who need slots for their kids often end up on waiting lists for months or years. The challenge to retain staff to meet demand comes down to low pay.

Lea Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, says the workforce is mostly women and women of color, who are not only experienced but educated.

“We know there are substantial wage gaps, where in particular Black early educators are being paid less than their peers,” she says. “The levels of economic insecurity are very high, and an important way to address that is to start with data.”

One dedicated educator in the field is Davina Woods, director of the First Presbyterian Child Development Center in Burlington, North Carolina. She says one of her favorite parts of teaching 4 and 5 year olds is leading them through song.

“To watch their eyes fill with wonder, it is the equivalent of watching a flower bloom,” she says.

Woods says she’s losing quality teachers who share her passion because their base pay starts at $16 an hour. One teacher with 17 years experience recently quit, Woods says.

Some centers are having a hard time retaining educators. (Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment)

“She literally chose to become a stay-at-home mom because it was more beneficial financially for her family than to come to work to pay for childcare,” she says.

On the West Coast, Angela Aquilizan can relate to the financial struggle. She’s raising a family and teaching at PTS Preschool in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“There’s a stigma of like, ‘oh, you chose that because you love kids and it’s a work of heart,’” she says. “Yes, and we need to be able to sustain ourselves.”

Now, Aquilizan is finishing up a master’s degree so she can be an instructor for the next generation of early childhood educators. But it’s a deal breaker, she says, when she tries to recruit college students to her field after they learn that the national average hourly rate for the job is $13.

“Once the reality of the situation hits them, they start going somewhere else,” she says. “They go into nursing, social work, they switch to other majors like psychology. So that’s the sad part about it.”

Diane Barsotti, director and owner of Children’s Corner Preschool in Winthrop, Massachusetts, says she has mostly lucked out finding staff in her small town through word of mouth. One perk for her teachers is free tuition for their own children.

“Because of that, I am limited to a pool of moms that want working hours or parents that want working hours,” she says.

Tuition there costs roughly $14 an hour. And their teachers start out making about $15 an hour, the minimum wage in Massachusetts.

Barsotti says a pandemic-era “child care stabilization grant” through the state has helped her bump up teacher salaries an extra $3 an hour. She expects the funding to continue for at least for the next few months.

“If anyone questions what we would need right now, it would definitely be funding to provide teachers with better salaries,” she says.

Advocates say child care centers operate on razor thin margins — simply charging parents more will not fix the problem.

When you do the math, you may understand why, without more federal investment, it’s not just young families who will continue to struggle with child care-related costs, but teachers, too.

The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment is helping find solutions on the federal and state level. It’s one of six organizations that has partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to launch a new National Early Care and Education Workforce Center.

The center’s broad goal over the next five years is to help local governments ensure that teaching and caring for young children is done well.

Communities, local governments, states have seen what is possible with public investment,” Austin says. “And that is going to be the building block for additional public investment in our child care system, in our child care workforce, so that we have thriving providers who are flocking into these good jobs and ensuring that children and families have access to good quality child care.”

As federal pandemic relief funds for the industry are set to end, state legislatures are now considering paying child care providers more, from Pennsylvania, to Minnesota, to North Dakota.

We want to know: Does your state, city, or county help with child care? What would be helpful for you?

Your response may inform a future story. 

Email us with your thoughts at letters@hereandnow.org.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.