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As COVID Restrictions Ease, Staff Shortages Mean Child Care Options Remain Limited

Virus Outbreak Child Care
Ted S. Warren/AP
While COVID restrictions have eased, staffing challenges have not.

Child care programs have fewer restrictions than they did last summer when COVID-19 was fresh and uncertain. But parents could still have a hard time finding somewhere to send their kids.

While COVID restrictions have eased, staffing challenges have not.

Illinois is heading toward a full reopening next month if COVID metrics remain on the right track.

Parents are ready to drop kids back at daycare, so they can get a break, or because their work life is changing.

Dana David is executive director of Milestones Early Learning Center in Bloomington. She said the problem is there's nowhere to send them.

"There are large employers talking about having staff return this summer, so parents are preparing for that. And they can't find anything," David said. "I had a mom with three kids inquire about care recently and said she couldn't find a program that could take all three of her kids.”

COVID Childcare 1
Facebook / Milestones Early Learning Center & Preschool
Jen, a daycare teacher at Milestones Early Learning Center & Preschool, wears a mask while painting with a child.

Short-staffing is the biggest factor, she said. Milestones has a waiting list of more than 50 kids and they're getting more calls by the day. David said it's not because of COVID-related capacity limits; it's simply because there aren't enough people to run the show.

No new employees means no new kids. David said it's an industry-wide problem.

“We post our jobs on Indeed, along with every other program in town. We've tried social media, word of mouth," David said. "I've been doing this for 19 years and I've never experienced anything like this.”

David said child care is always tough work. But amid COVID, personal safety has become a big deterrent.

“We aren't in a setting where it is easy to social distance. Babies need to be held and comforted and, obviously, under (age) 2 they cannot wear masks for safety issues," David said. "So, yeah, it did put people in a very nervous state of, 'Am I safe? Am I safe going home to my families after I've been here?'”

Another challenge is who qualifies. David said the state and Department of Children Family Services is working on ways to allow more people to enter the profession. Solutions aren't that simple.

“We don't want to reduce requirements for people working in this field to just putting anyone in a classroom, but yet we need a workforce," David said. "Minimum wage going up is challenging. These costs are going to fall on parents moving forward.”

Providers acknowledge child care costs are high. They say there's no easy way around it.

Tia Griffin is director of Katie's Kids Learning Center in Bloomington. She said families are paying more than $600 a week for daycare—and that's with a discount.

That's hard for families to afford. It's also not enough for care providers to pay higher wages, Griffin said.

"Everybody makes minimum wage or just above it. My director has a master's degree and my high school student who's 18 makes more money than her as a lifeguard. So that doesn't help," she said.

Griffin said the low pay doesn't match the physical and mental strain of the job. She said people get paid more to do less strenuous jobs.

COVID Child Care 2
Katie's Kids Learning Center
Tia Griffin, director of Katie's Kids Early Learning in Bloomington, says the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an existing staff shortage across the industry.

“I mean, there's no reason now for them to (stay), if they can just go to Wendy's and make more money for an easier position. That's really killing us," Griffin said. "I have employees working 10-12 hour days—like consistently for weeks on end."

Katie's Kids is still accepting new children, Griffin said, but has been operating with restricted hours to ensure existing staff have enough time to properly clean and sanitize. She said the Bloomington center is nearly back to normal hours.

Some things haven't changed in daycare settings since this time a year ago. Centers are still checking temperatures, screening for possible COVID exposure, increasing handwashing and teaching kids about how to keep themselves healthy.

Parents, for the most part, are still not allowed inside facilities. They drop their kids off at the door. Children are kept in "pods" and can't move between classrooms. They're spending less time in shared spaces. All of this also can be hard on child care workers.

Melissa Breeden runs early childhood education programs at the YWCA McLean County. She said the organization recognizes times are tough for daycare teachers and are trying to keep them afloat.

“We've been able to link them with utility assistance, grocery gift cards, special Christmas gifts for their children to kind of help alleviate some personal finance struggles. We've been also able able to link them with some mental health resources," Breeden said. "So just making sure that our staff are in the best possible mind frame so that they can offer the best care that children need.”

Breeden said the strain is higher as COVID changes things by the minute. She says the YWCA, like other child care providers, have had positive cases. That means everyone involved has to quarantine for two weeks.

Breeden said positive cases cause significant strain for families who rely on having child care.

"We really are just doing the best we possibly can," Breeden said. "We've increased our costs on sanitation sanitizer, gloves, masks—all of that stuff. But we have had to let go of the fact that we do not have control over a pandemic. All we can control is that our staff are compliant are meeting those CDC regulations and so are the children.”

"We have had to let go of the fact that we do not have control over a pandemic. All we can control is that our staff are compliant are meeting those CDC regulations and so are the children.”

The unreliability of care during the pandemic can be especially troublesome for mothers.

Elise Gould with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute said most people aren't working from home and can't take kids to the office with them.

"Many women who have a hard time are the ones who have to physically go into work—and that's the vast majority to this economy," Gould said. "Even today, 80% of workers are actually going physically to work. So they have no ability to take care of young kids. They can't go to those jobs."

Gould said women have borne the brunt of unemployment during the pandemic. That's largely because they take on disproportionate caregiving responsibility. But she said this was a problem before COVID, too.

Gould said mothers' labor force participation has been softening for decades. She said the cost-benefit analysis is hard to weigh.

“It's a false choice that people are making," Gould said. "They don't really have a choice between being able to work in the labor market reliably, and get the early care and education that they want for their kids because it is simply out of reach."

That's not just the case for low-income families, Gould said. Many moderate income families also struggle. She said the burden is worse for Black and Latina women.

Still, Gould said she's hopeful those displaced from work due the pandemic can rejoin the workforce soon.

"I'm optimistic. I think that there will be many opportunities as it becomes safe to completely reopen and schools are open and child care centers are reliably open," Gould said. "I think there will be opportunities that will return to many people who have been sidelined in this economy."

She said without policy change to better support families and child care providers, a "return to normal" will remain out of reach for many.

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