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Finding child care in the Berkshires went from hard to horrible since the pandemic. We look at the reasons behind the child care staffing crisis

Issues with finding safe, affordable care isn't just a parent's problem, but a societal issue.

kids play at bumblebee home day care

Jessica Devylder facilitates pre-lunch play at Bumblebee Home Day Care, which she has run out of her Pittsfield home for 17 years. A new report shows hourly workers in Massachusetts collectively miss out on more than $1.6 billion in wages every year because of unmet child care needs.

It’s the crisis we could have seen coming. Child care providers did. They knew their underfunded, underpaid system, a “mishmash” of care that parents must navigate on their own, was vulnerable to breaking down.

Today, they’re fighting to hold it all together, one positive COVID-19 test and one teacher resignation after another.

By all accounts, the pandemic steamrolled a stressed early education system in Massachusetts. Programs that working parents desperately need in the Berkshires now struggle to find staff members and fulfill their civic mission, their leaders say. Because they can’t hire all the educators they need, fewer child care “slots” are available, with obvious hardships all around — and fewer workers able to clock in.

This Project Paycheck dispatch describes the pandemic-era workforce problem that may have the most far-reaching and long-term social consequences of all those in this series. The crisis in child care, as we’ve noted in passing, is one of the reasons experts believe the Berkshire County workforce shrank by 4,675 from July 2019 to July 2021.

Over the past week, I’ve spoken with a cross section of people who run child care programs in the Berkshires. I’m going to break down the problem, then introduce you to people who are trying not only to patch the system together, but fix it.

As parents who seek care outside the home for young children already know, all’s not well in this business. Because children are our future, everyone should be aware of what’s happening.

The meltdown

Amid all the workplace dislocation in 2020, 2021 and now in 2022, the plight of those who work to educate and care for other people’s young children could be seen as just another corner of misery.

That would be wrong, people in this field say. The region’s network of licensed child care programs and home-based day care centers, particularly those that include state-subsidized care, has been an essential safe harbor for working families, as well as vital to early childhood development.

But it’s been unraveling. A survey just conducted for the Department of Early Childhood and Care found that 60 percent of child care programs had reduced their enrollment because of staffing gaps. Nearly seven in 10 had unfilled jobs representing more than a tenth of their workforces.

Almost half of those quitting the child care field (47 percent) were going off to different lines of work, the survey found.

teacher appreciation sign at 18 degrees
tyeesha keele-kedroe teaches pre-k
celia armstrong teaches pre-k
tyeesha keele-kedroe teaches pre-k
beth darling teaches preschool

Meantime, three-quarters of child care program directors said they aren’t getting the kinds of applicants they need: trustworthy people who can meet state certification rules. And when those people did apply, two-thirds of them wanted pay the programs felt they couldn’t provide.

Providing this kind of care more fully and equitably is one of the signature goals of the Build Back Better Act, the Biden administration legislation that remains bottled up in Congress, having passed in the House but not the Senate. The legislation would bring $3.1 billion in early childhood care funding to the state, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, including a one-year extension of a new child tax credit.

For now, even with pandemic-era cash infusions, the early education system remains a poor cousin to public education, which runs on reliable, if not always adequate, public funding when a child reaches school age.

“Study after study shows the importance of a stable early education relationship (on) children and their success later on,” says Sarah Cook, president and CEO at 18 Degrees in Pittsfield, one of the region’s largest providers of early education and child care. “If we're not able to provide young people with in-person support, teaching, language skills acquisition and socialization that is so important for success, it's concerning.”

That sense of stability in the child care world went AWOL in the past year and a half, she and others say.

“Educational providers for all ages are struggling to remain operating,” Cook said. “We do our darndest to provide the critical services that we know our families and our communities need. We struggle with keeping our staffing levels up. We need support to ensure that we have the resources so we can do that safely.”

Her colleague Gina Blake, the agency’s vice president of programs, is clear about the stakes. They’re high.

“It's impacting parents' ability to work and be successful at work, which is increasing the stress in homes and for the families we serve. These are usually families who already have quite a bit of financial stress in their lives.”

Heavy staff turnover

When the pandemic arrived, a lot of veteran teachers in this field decided to call it a day. Unable to fill the open jobs, program directors had to reduce openings.

“I've been on the phone with directors who are just ready to cry,” Anne Nemetz-Carlson, president and CEO of Child Care of the Berkshires, told me.

They mourn hourly pay for child care workers that was never seen as adequate, not considering the indisputable social value of the work — caring for young people. As other employers bumped wages up, child care jobs seemed even less attractive, even as programs steered government allocations into bonuses.

Parents trying to find care for their children have been at wit’s end as well, especially those with infants.

“It’s really hard right now.” That’s what Jessica Devylder, who has run Bumblebee Home Day Care on Cadwell Road in Pittsfield for 17 years, told me. “I get phone calls, I don’t even know how many times, from a parent looking for an infant spot. Right now, they’re so full — and many providers decided to shut down.”

jessica devylder plays with kids at day care
jessica devylder plays with kids at day care
finn alderman balances on buckets at day care
jessica devylder and kids read book at day care
jack diaz in mask

Devylder says she has stopped accepting infants into her program. “I think a lot of people are concerned with the little ones. I’m scared because I don't want to be responsible for something happening to an infant, for any of my little ones,” she said.

Devylder doesn’t anticipate an opening in her center, which is licensed for eight children, until July.

Across the state, 15,050 children were on waiting lists for care as of Jan. 5. That includes 2,253 children in the Department of Early Childhood and Care region that encompasses the Berkshires. The state’s tally shows that the list includes 340 infants, 585 toddlers, 467 preschoolers and 861 children waiting for after-school care; it doesn’t include children whose parents didn’t think it worth even bothering to sign up.

Kristy Renzi’s 8-month-old daughter is on one of those lists in North Adams.

Renzi, 25, has been looking for care so she could go back to her job at Berkshire Families & Individual Resources, where she provides community outreach to the agency’s clients.

“I’ve looked everywhere. There’s just no infant day care available,” she told me, a fact that caregivers confirm. That’s in part because it costs more to care for infants, since the state requires greater staffing per child at that age, to ensure their safety. Centers charge more for infant care. The private pay fee at one Berkshires program is $1,565 a month.

Without state subsidies, which reach 48,000 of the 200,000 children now enrolled in early education in Massachusetts, infant care can exceed the cost of attending a public college. The cost of private care in downtown Boston can hit $110 a day, or $26,000 a year.

Renzi added her name to waiting lists, but not by any means near the top. This week, intent on getting back to work, she hoped to line up a sitter instead, for a relatively cheap $80 a week. Renzi had hoped to get to work in early November, but she, her daughter and one of her two sons, who are 2 and 4, fell ill with COVID-19. When she and her kids got better, her hunt for child care resumed.

“It’s been difficult not being able to work because I can’t find child care for my daughter.”

The care gap

Today, there are 30,000 fewer child care spots available in Massachusetts, compared to before the pandemic.

In this region, 18 percent of the small home-based day care centers operating in March 2020 never reopened. One observer at the state level told me the problem of lost child care slots is slightly worse in Western Massachusetts.

Why? Many of the people, mainly women, who run home-based care centers tend to be older in rural areas. Fewer young mothers are doing as Jessica Devylder of Pittsfield did: Start her own day care business, which enabled her to care for her children at home.

The numbers are better for the larger, center-based early education programs, where just 3 percent of pre-pandemic programs disappeared in Western Massachusetts — an area the state defines, basically, as everything west of the Quabbin Reservoir.

Still, even those still operating have fewer openings for children. The 18 Degrees program, for example, is licensed to care for 181 children but because of staffing gaps can only handle 70 percent of that number.

At Child Care of the Berkshires, two classrooms in Pittsfield are at half enrollment — 15 instead of 30, due to staffing shortages. In North Adams, the program has about 20 spots it can’t fill, out of its license to care for 83 children.

A November survey run for the state suggests that as many as 42 percent of licensed slots are unfilled in larger child care programs, and 32 percent are empty in family-based programs. The board that oversees the Department of Early Childhood and Care was told last month that one-fifth of all programs can’t accommodate as many children as allowed because of staffing gaps, a situation that’s worse in “Social Vulnerability Index” communities, such as Pittsfield and North Adams.

All this comes after the state took unavoidable steps, early in the pandemic, to lessen the risk of COVID-19 transmission by trimming classroom sizes. A classroom that might have held 20 children, one educator told me, had to drop to 13.

“Seven kids is a lot of money in the classroom, because the state pays us by kids,” says Nemetz-Carlson, of Child Care of the Berkshires.

Anne Nemetz-Carlson

Anne Nemetz-Carlson, president and CEO of Child Care of the Berkshires, speaks in 2017 about a $1 million grant that was to be used to renovate the group's State Street facility in North Adams. “I've been on the phone with directors who are just ready to cry,” she said of the stress the pandemic has placed on childcare programs. 

To be sure, some of that lost revenue is finding or will eventually find its way back, through allocations from three separate federal pots of money, including the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act and the lesser known Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA).

Together, Massachusetts will receive $371.7 million from all three pieces of legislation specifically to shore up child care; to date, only $45.7 million in CARES Act money has been spent, according to a January report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation; other pots of money are about to crack open.

The CRRSA Act provided $10 billion to child care programs around the country. In a required memo, Massachusetts officials pledged to use this state’s share to shore up losses in care centers, rebuild family access to care and pay staff more fairly, as well as look ahead to ways to guarantee sustainable care.

It’s important to remember: These are can-do people, by nature. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, most everyone hunkered down for a few weeks, wondering what would happen next. 

People who staff early education centers were among the first ordered back out by the governor, even as schools remained closed. Without their programs, parents with young children could not return to essential jobs. Or any job, really, that you can’t do from home.

So they got back to it — scores of educators in the Berkshires alone. Across Massachusetts, 600 emergency care sites went into action, with enrollments around 5,000, according to state figures.

Over time, and it didn’t take long, the wheels began to come off. Something was always going wrong, mainly due to staff schedules and positive COVID-19 tests. One program director, forced like all her colleagues to grapple with daily classroom closings or lost transportation service due to positive COVID-19 tests, adopted a new nickname: the chaos coordinator.

“It’s just the perfect storm,” said Erin Sullivan, vice president of community and donor relations at 18 Degrees in Pittsfield.

The caregivers

I asked Kelly A. Marion, CEO of the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center Inc. in Pittsfield, how her agency is providing care, in light of all the staffing challenges. She took a deep breath, paused, and said all but one job, in maintenance, was filled as of this week.

BBI_KELLY_MARION-3.jpg (copy) (copy)

Kelly A. Marion, CEO of the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center in Pittsfield.

She might have been looking for a piece of wood to knock on.

“It has been the most stressful time probably in all of our careers that we've been doing this work,” she told me.

For 20 years, William J. Eddy has helped advise hundreds of early education centers, including many in the Berkshires. ​“The last 22 months have been unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” he told me this week from his office in Worcester with the Massachusetts Association of Early Education & Care. “We are a safety net for our most at-risk children.”

That net got thinner.

“Our capacity is down because we simply can’t staff up,” Eddy said. “Low pay has been a chronic issue in the early education field. This is a tough profession. It’s hard work. You’re isolated. I think people have just said, ‘I’m going to do something different.’”

“There has been a huge awakening to the role that early education plays not just in the lives of children, but in families,” he said. “It’s a shame that it took a pandemic to shine a light on it.”

Hevreh Photo — Rainbow (1).jpg

Brittany Phair, a teacher at the Early Childhood Center at Hevreh of the Southern Berkshires, in Great Barrington, reads to children in the program. Like other childcare centers, Phair's program is struggling to find qualified teachers. 

At the Early Childhood Center at the synagogue Hevreh in Great Barrington, educators are licensed for 35 children in their four classrooms. Ellen Marcus, its director, says the program is about 10 children shy of that, for staffing reasons.

“I would love to hire more people, both full time and part time. I can’t find applicants,” she told me. “At this point I’m not even getting a candidate. Recruiting staff is exceedingly challenging.”

Nemetz-Carlson, the leader at Child Care of the Berkshires Inc. in North Adams, one of the region’s largest centers, says she lost two experienced teachers in the infant program in close succession. One took another job. The other had just had enough.

“Some people did not want to have that anxiety every day of coming to work and not knowing whether they’d get infected,” she said. Remember, none of the little people who arrive at child care centers — infants, toddlers and preschoolers — are cleared yet for vaccination.

The two classrooms Nemetz-Carlson’s program operates in Pittsfield, with a half dozen employees, saw a complete staff turnover during the pandemic. About half of the two dozen staff in the agency’s seven classrooms in North Adams left. To her relief, many of the longer-term employees are sticking it out.

“They’re brave and dedicated to come to work,” she said of them. “And it’s hard work.”

“We’re scraping. We know we’re stealing staff back and forth,” she said. “We want our programs to be stable and our teachers to be comfortable.”

One of the consequences of all the upheaval is heard, if never said.

Young children don’t do well with uncertainty. Many react badly to the latest unfamiliar face in their classrooms, unsettling the steps they are taking toward living with others, program leaders told me.

“They cry and they're not familiar,” Nemetz-Carlson said. “A lot of people don’t love change.”

Building back

Center directors are using relief money to provide bonuses and increase pay, by offering from $1.50 to $2 more an hour on rates that seldom crack the $20 level.

The relief money is linked, naturally, to the number of children being served, with a bonus provided for programs that serve children from low-income families.

At the Early Childhood Center at Hevreh, in Great Barrington, an allocation of $12,000 a month, through June, is helping support staff pay. “It’s significant, and I want to use it well,” said Marcus, the program’s director.

To restore their ranks of teachers, both 18 Degrees and Child Care of the Berkshires are hiring people who don’t yet meet the state’s certification requirements as assistant teachers at slightly reduced pay. They work under certified teachers to obtain the needed nine months of experience, as well as some higher-ed training in child development.

In time, that will increase access to care. But not right away.

“I'd have five new staff and not be able to serve any more kids until they have gone through the certification process,” Blake, of 18 Degrees, told me. “We're getting applicants all the time, but they aren't folks that I can hire tomorrow and increase capacity.”

That’s a short-term fix. The push is on to change the playing field. Advocates for children say the pandemic pulled the curtain back on inequities in child care.

A state commission is exploring change. Some of the federal money will even fund that search.

Separately, the Common Start Coalition is backing a bill by that name that would solidify funding for care programs by basing it on capacity, not attendance — a system more akin to public education. Once fully implemented, it would make child care free for families below the statewide median income ($42,614 for a single parent with one child; $62,668 for a family of four). A hearing was held in November before the Education Committee.

The measure’s co-sponsors include state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield; Paul W. Mark, D-Peru; and William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

This week, representatives of 131 organizations wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker asking him to allocate $600 million to extend current grants designed to support child care programs through June 2023.

Like many in the child care field, Farley-Bouvier says the work should be considered part of public education, and paid accordingly.

“Long before the pandemic we had a crisis in child care, that there were not enough slots, and we had difficulty hiring people because the pay was so low,” she told me. “Early education should be public education. We don’t ask families to pay for fifth grade. But we ask them to sometimes pay what they would pay for college for child care.”

Nemetz-Carlson is backing proposed reforms on Beacon Hill. She wants child care to be treated like a public good, just as K-12 education. It irked her that in one rollout of COVID-19 test kits to schools, the child care sector was ignored. “We’re educating kids just like they are. We’re the poor people begging for help. I would like more fairness.”

“The big system of child care is about to change,” she said. “It hasn’t come soon enough.”

Amy O’Leary, executive director of the advocacy group Strategies for Children, believes the pandemic is finally laying bare what’s wrong with the current child care system, which Farley-Bouvier refers to as a “mishmash.”

O’Leary thinks the system’s near-collapse over the past two years makes the case for reform. The state itself adopted a key piece of the Common Start legislation during the pandemic, when it shifted to a payment system based on enrollment rather than attendance.

“In most of the policies, we’ve been an afterthought,” O’Leary said of the child care field. “We’ve left it up to parents to navigate. I think that has changed. We need to recognize these systems for what they are doing to support children's development and for the connection to our economy. It was very clear, when people suddenly were like, 'Wait a minute, you can't ask people to go back to work, if they don't have child care.'”

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

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