During the pandemic, Emma LaVecchia, co-founder of Pine Village Preschool, said her organization lost 50 percent of its staff across its 10 locations in the Greater Boston Area, including two in Newton.
According to a recent analysis from the University of California, Berkeley, the child care workforce in Massachusetts has shrunk by about 12 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.
At Bowen After School Care Program in Newton Centre, which provides classes for kindergarteners through fifth-graders, director Ellen Weiss said some parents share frustrations with her when they try to register their children for preschool. Some families new to the Newton school district do not understand how most early childhood programs in Newton are nonprofits and not part of the public school system, she said.
“I have families who are very upset with me because they need to work,” Weiss said. “I understand it but I can’t go above my state ratios.”
In Massachusetts, all center-based child care facilities are licensed by the number of children they can care for, and they must meet specific staffing requirements based on the age of the children.
The pool of early childhood certified teachers had “disappeared,” LaVecchia said. Pine Village Preschool is fully staffed now, but it took LaVecchia a whole academic year to interview and hire more than 30 new teachers.
“Many of the people who are applying for positions are applying either fresh out of college or with little or no experience in early childhood,” LaVecchia said. “We have to hire them to make sure they have the coursework and the experience to work alongside another teacher until they actually have the requirements to get certified.”
LaVecchia said two Newton locations in Pine Village are “heavier on preschool programs” than toddlers’ classes because there is no universal pre-kindergarten system in the city. At the Newton Early Childhood Program, parents can pay nearly $6,000 per school year for part-time child care from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., with limited financial assistance available.
“There are no free options for early childcare or preschools before public school,” said Nermeen Dashoush, a Newton-based clinical assistant professor of early childhood education at Boston University and mother of two children. “There’s no guarantee for anybody to get into any of these programs. Spots are limited, hours are limited, and everything is limited.”
As the pandemic hit, LaVecchia said, some early childcare teachers left the profession because of the risk involved in the work environment — most young children weren’t vaccinated for COVID-19 at the time.
“I think some teachers in early childhood also went into being nannies and working for private families, which is much less risky as far as COVID goes — and the pay is good,” LaVecchia said.
Andrea Stein, director of early childhood at Temple Emanuel Preschool — a part-time synagogue preschool in Newton Centre — said she thinks, in general, many childcare teachers left their positions because they didn’t “feel valued as educators.”
“A lot of people view early childhood as ‘babysitters,’ and we’re not,” Stein said. “We’re educators. We set up children with foundations, we give them a place to grow from and a solid basis on which to learn things.”
With 81 students currently enrolled, Susan Benes, the director of Second Church Nursery School in Newton, said people are “tired of being home with their children” — 18 families are waiting to get into her program in the coming school year.
“If they’re working from home, it’s not easy to work with kids underfoot,” Benes said. “So everybody is eager to send their kids back off to school and just get what the kids need — get the kids’ needs met socially, and academically, and be ready for kindergarten.”
Parents like Ricardo Bilonick, a Newton resident who works a full-time job in Boston, said he chose preschool by weighing many factors — including drop-off and pick-up times, age requirement, price consideration, and school availability — much of which have been impacted by staffing shortages.
“We’ve experienced that the school hasn’t been able to accommodate sometimes if we want to do an extra day, or if we want to stay late because there aren’t enough teachers on the school side,” Bilonick said. “There’s life and work to get in the way of that 3:30 or 5:30 pick-up time and having that flexibility would be great.”
Since August 2021, providers licensed with the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care have been able to apply for Commonwealth Cares for Children — a stabilization grant to pay staff and support operating costs.
The stabilization grant will be “ending toward the end of August,” said Shirley Rivera, a member of the grant support team at the state’s Early Childhood department.
“A bunch of early childhood educators across the state are petitioning local senators and government officials to help,” Stein said. “It was a huge support and a huge help for us over the past year.”
LaVecchia said childcare centers will need the public’s help to continue operating if the state ends the grant program.
“We should celebrate that early childhood is now on the front burner for everyone instead of the back, and the pandemic has brought to light how essential good childcare is,” LaVecchia said. “If we want equity, and we want opportunities for quality preschool programs, then funds have to be allocated.”
Cici Yu can be reached at [email protected].