The struggle facing child care centers amid pandemic


Bouncing back and forth

When Jones closed the original location of Lovie Lee’s Stars of Tomorrow in September, it was more than shuttering a legacy. She was also closing down the kind of small, homey child care setting that appeals to many families.

“I thought it was more intimate for infants and toddlers,” she said. “It brings parents comfort when it’s a smaller program.”

But running two locations in the midst of a pandemic — and constantly covering for absent staff at each — was stressful mentally, physically, and financially, Jones said.

“Me, being one person bouncing back and forth at two locations was difficult, and that’s the moment I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.

Getzinger, of the Early Learning Resource Center, said among child care programs that have closed recently, there’s a mix of long-established providers like Jones and some that “didn’t realize what they were getting into.”

New providers are also a mixed bag: Some are opening second and third locations, which Getzinger likes to see.

But she wonders about providers who are new to the field, especially because of what she described as lagging demand for care.

“It doesn’t feel like the population is there right now,” she said. “Parents are either making different choices or just not returning to care in the same numbers they did prior to the pandemic,” she said.

A child plays at DeeGrace Child Care Center.
A child plays at DeeGrace Child Care Center. (Courtesy of Adeola Ileyemi)

A constant headache

Like child care providers in Philadelphia and elsewhere, Ileyemi has struggled to find and keep qualified staff.

“I’ve lost good staff because they want me to pay them what I can’t pay them” she said. “You can only pay what you have.”

A DeeGrace job posting on currently lists the pay range for a lead infant teacher as $9.21 to $15 an hour and the shift length as 12 hours. The statewide median wage for a child care worker is $10.69, according to a 2020 Stanford University report on the early childhood workforce in each state.

Both experts and providers say job-seekers in today’s labor market can make more doing unskilled labor at retail stores or fast food restaurants than working in child care.

Over the last year, some DeeGrace staff members simply stopped showing up for work. Others “call off all the time,” Ileyemi said.

Staff shortages can have troubling consequences. At least once, too few employees at DeeGrace led to a state violation because the center was out of compliance with required staff-child ratios. Such rules, which limit the number of children one staff member can oversee, are meant to keep children safe.

Ileyemi, who describes herself as someone who rarely sits down to relax, is frustrated by the constant staffing problems.

“It’s making me upset,” she said.

Still, Ileyemi hopes she can make the business work long-term: “I think things [are] going to get better.”

Today, when Jones has to cover teacher absences at Lovie Lee’s, it means she simply runs up or down a few steps, instead of across the neighborhood like she did when she ran two centers.

When she closed the original location, she absorbed the dozen children there into her larger center, converting a room used for staff meetings and training into a new classroom. Although that classroom boosted her total capacity to about 40 children, she can’t find enough staff for that number of kids. Instead, she has about 35 children during the school year and 25 during the summer.

When Jones thinks about closing the site where she got her start more than 20 years ago, she takes solace in the fact that COVID hobbled many providers.

It helps “me not feel I failed at something,” she said. “That’s just where the world is with this pandemic.”

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