CHELSEA, MI – The unique half-wall structure that cuts across the middle of Chelsea’s Mudpies and Lullabies gives those working inside the child care center a bird’s eye view into each of its age-specific areas, where children are watched over with state-required staff-to-child ratios.
The child care center proudly notes it was a rare constant for parents who relied heavily on its experienced staff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to provide some semblance of stability in their lives, Owner Angie Westermeyer said, overlooking the center’s bustling mix of children and staff.
With a space that is able to accommodate 44 children and only a few children cycling out of the program each year, an enrollment slot at Mudpies and Lullabies has become one of the most sought-after commodities in the city, with the child care facility’s waitlist growing from around 150 families pre-pandemic to more than 250 currently.
“There’s a lot of desperation in parents’ voices when they call looking for spots,” Westermeyer said. “We’ve had parents offering to pay more than the tuition that we charge, just to be able to get into the door. It’s heartbreaking.”
Growing waitlists have become a reality for child care facilities in Washtenaw County and throughout Michigan on the heels of a pandemic that tested the mettle of even successful providers facing persistent staffing shortages. The question facing centers has become increasingly complex to answer: How do you run a successful business, attract and retain staff with living wages and provide child care that is affordable for families?
“It’s this constant push and pull struggle families and child care providers face everyday,” Westermeyer said. “We want to fulfill our need and we also have to make it to a point where it’s affordable for families, but if we make it affordable for families, we can’t pay our staff what they deserve.”
On top of that, daycare facilities have very specific needs and must adhere to stringent regulations and adult-to-child ratios set by the state, Westermeyer said, which has made expanding to another facility in the city a challenge.
“The short answer is we’re trying, the long answer is we’re not having much luck,” Westermeyer said of expansion. “We know there’s a need to fulfill and we want to help families. We feel like our core team is strong enough to handle that challenge, it’s a matter of finding space and funding.”
A need in their own backyard
The story is the same across the state, with a recent analysis by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan finding there are about four children for every available child care spot in Michigan.
The analysis showed that more than 40% of Michigan residents live in areas considered “child care deserts,” or areas with more than 50 children under age 5 with no child care providers or more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots. The state has introduced a pilot program to address accessible care by splitting child care costs between the employer, employee and a state fund.
When Crystal McKinsey saw the extensive waitlist at Mudpies and Lullabies in researching potential locations to launch her dream concept for an educational daycare and after-school program facility, she determined her husband’s hometown to be an ideal first location after the couple moved back to Chelsea about a year ago.
After working extensively in child care throughout her career in New York City, McKinsey and her husband, Michael Eisele, believe they’ve found the perfect spot to launch their first Aster daycare facility in early 2023 at 128 Van Buren St. in downtown Chelsea, with plans to open six to eight facilities in Michigan in the next two years.
The couple plans to implement a STEAM curriculum that also provides opportunities for children six-weeks to 12-years-old to participate in entrepreneurship, etiquette and athletics.
While demand is certainly there, McKinsey acknowledges Aster will need to pay its staff about 150% of the average going rate of $13 per hour in Michigan to be able to attract a limited pool of qualified candidates.
“When we were considering opening our school, New York was a target zone residentially, but we saw the need right here in our own backyard,” McKinsey said. “Being competitive and offering higher compensation packages that are more aligned with the cost of living is going to allow us to expand our network in terms of who we can recruit.”
Finding a ‘sweet spot’
With the residence at 1003 West Michigan Avenue’s decades-long history of providing child care on the south side of Ypsilanti, Kier McLemore and his wife, Deata, saw an opportunity in 2014 to move the couple’s budding Bottles-N-Backpacks Child Development Center they had been renting for six years out of the Ypsilanti’s former Ford Elementary in 2014.
The former General Motors engineer said he’s drawn on his experiences and tried to use his skillset to ensure Bottles-N-Backpacks operates efficiently while meeting a community need without over-taxing staff that include two of his family’s seven children at the center’s two Ypsilanti locations.
Benefitting from a new $8-million program aimed at addressing child care access in Washtenaw County, Bottles-N-Backpacks is looking to use $600,000 in funding to expand its STEAM offerings by hiring a curriculum director while hiring staff to take on additional capacity.
While demand can change by age level on a constant basis, McLemore said it is clear there is a need for child care services in Ypsilanti. Expanding to meet the demand requires careful planning, however, including making sure prospective hires are invested in the community they’ll be serving.
“It’s a matter of aligning with who has the passion and the drive and who wants to be within this community, while being able to effectively serve their needs (from a salary and benefits) standpoint, and who may just be looking for a job,” he said.
When Bottles-N-Backpacks cut back on its enrollment slots during the COVID-19 pandemic, Deata McLemore said it “gave everybody a chance to breathe” by structuring classrooms with smaller class sizes to meet health and safety regulations and make staffing levels more manageable.
While Bottles-N-Backpacks would like to be able to serve more than the approximately 60 children it currently enrolls and return to more traditional staff-to-child ratios, Deata said there is a balance to strike.
“Now we’re trying to figure ways to structure classrooms without over-taxing teachers,” she said. “I think we are trying to find that sweet spot financially and to be able to keep our teachers comfortable.”
Fixing a ‘broken system’
Finding qualified staff is another story entirely, particularly for infants and toddlers, said Child Care Network Executive Director Annette Sobocinski.
Based in Ann Arbor and with locations across Michigan, the nonprofit received $1.18 million from Washtenaw County toward providing child care scholarships to families in need. While the scholarships could help some families cover up to $10,000 to $15,000 a year in child care enrollment costs, Sobocinski said persistent staffing issues leave many centers unable to expand enrollment.
“The biggest issue by far is staffing,” Sobocinski said. “In child care, it was already bad before the pandemic and it’s just a lot worse since then. The pay is low and so, owners and directors of programs are trying to hire staff and competing with Walmart and Taco Bell and other places that can afford to pay more money.”
As demand for child care access has grown in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan announced plans in October to develop a new child care center designed to meet the needs of health care workers at Michigan Medicine that will be operated in a partnership with an outside child care provider.
As a teacher at one of the University of Michigan’s three child care centers, Emily Fanelli said she has witnessed staffing shortages limit the number of children that can be served at UM’s North Campus Children’s Center.
With plans to build and operate a new center with an existing, outside provider, she wonders how the new child care center will be able to attract staff to serve up to 200 children without the same salary and benefits packages the university offers, when it is difficult to attract them to current job openings.
“We can’t even fulfill our centers right now, so I don’t know why they think that they can build a center and be able to recruit teachers,” Fanelli said.
To attract and retain staff, Fanelli said she believes wages for child care workers should be subsidized, while offering benefits packages that will move the needle for prospective employees to fix a “broken system.”
At a time when children are facing a new set of social-emotional challenges that have come with living through two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, an investment must be made in staff to meet an increasingly critical need, she said.
“Some of the behaviors we’re seeing are making the normal class load unbearable,” she said. “If we had extra staff to help children that need one-on-one attention, then teachers wouldn’t be burning out.”