High turnover and staffing shortages have long been a scourge of early childhood education, but for many child care providers, the struggle has ratcheted up considerably during the pandemic.

That was true in the height of the outbreak last year, and it remains true now.

“We cannot find teachers,” says Aarie Wade, child development center director at Baxter Community Center in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It’s as simple as that.”

Wade’s program hasn’t returned to full capacity since March 2020, when she shut down for what would end up being a four-month closure. Ever since reopening last June, she has been trying to build back her staff. But no one is applying. And without teachers to fill the classrooms, Wade has not been able to bring on as many children as she is licensed to accommodate. She’s down about 18 child care slots.

The issue is not the virus anymore. It’s staffing.

Child care providers all over the country, regardless of their state or setting, are experiencing the strain of being understaffed. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a nonprofit that represents the full spectrum of early childhood educators, surveyed 7,500 providers from mid-June to early July and found that more than half of respondents are experiencing greater difficulties with recruiting and retaining staff now than before March 2020.

Among providers who work in center-based settings, the survey found 80 percent are currently experiencing a staffing shortage, which NAEYC defines as having at least one role open and unfilled for a month or longer.

The reality in many programs is much more dire. Wade, for example, employed about 15 teachers before the pandemic, and now she is hovering at nine. Three of those nine are recent hires, and two of them have no experience in early care and education settings.

In Delaware, Toni Dickerson has 53 people on staff, compared to the 75 she’d employed before the pandemic.

Both providers are hiring to fill those spots, but the supply—the applicant pool—just isn’t there.

‘It’s a Mess’

Dickerson is an administrator at Sussex Preschools, which operates four sites in rural parts of Delaware that are considered “child care deserts.” In her community, every unfilled teacher position equals a handful of parents who lack any sort of high-quality child care alternative. In one town where Sussex Preschools operates, it is the sole early childhood program available. In another, it’s the only one that is licensed to care for infants.

So what are families doing instead? It’s a mess, Dickerson says. Desperate for child care, many of them are dropping their kids at unlicensed facilities—she named cheerleading gyms and martial arts centers as examples. It’s possible nothing could go wrong. But without licenses, those places are not required to run criminal background checks on staff or assess their capabilities for providing child care. One person could be responsible for supervising 10 to 15 children, much higher than the state-required ratios for licensed programs.

“There’s no way to control allergy exposure or general safety of the kids,” Dickerson explains. “And bouncing kids around from place to place isn’t good for their brain development—it can cause attachment issues, if they don’t know where they’re going next or where they’ll end up.”

In these unlicensed facilities, Dickerson says, there could be 30 or 40 young children present with a couple of untrained adults. “But because there’s no other option, that’s what parents do.”

The largest child care center within Sussex Preschools is licensed to care for 132 children. Right now, it’s serving about 85.

High Turnover, Low Demand

This is not unique to Dickerson. Of the providers that NAEYC surveyed who said they were experiencing staffing challenges, 50 percent said they were serving fewer children as a result, a third said they have a longer waitlist or are unable to reopen all of their classrooms, and about a quarter have had to reduce operating hours.

“It’s completely because of staffing,” Dickerson notes, but adds that she had trouble reaching full capacity at her largest site well before the pandemic, because turnover has long been plaguing the field.

Over the past year, the challenges for providers have been magnified—in part because the options for potential applicants have improved. Prospective early childhood educators see how hard they would have to work in the position and how much money they would be paid for it and often decide that, even though they love working with children, they’d be better off elsewhere.

Many of them turn to their local K-12 schools. The school districts near Sussex Preschools are offering better deals for substitute teachers and paraprofessionals than Dickerson’s early childhood program can, and with much fewer hoops to jump through.

A substitute could make $150 to $200 a day in the district, she says. Most providers can’t compete with that—Sussex Preschools teachers typically earn $80 to $90 a day, before tax.

And then there are the retail and service jobs pulling teachers away. Chick-fil-A pays $15-16 an hour in Sussex County, Dickerson says, while many of her teachers make only $10. “As much as I love Chick-fil-A, it’s a lot easier to cook nuggets and be polite than it is to work in child care.”

In the summers, providers also have to contend with seasonal work. In Delaware, it’s the beaches. The shore is only a 30- or 40-minute drive away, Dickerson explains. “Our educators could waitress for the summer and make their yearly salary. I have a friend doing that, and she’s rolling in it.”

This also tracks with NAEYC’s findings. Seventy-one percent of providers said their local public school was the most common alternative to jobs in early childhood education, with retail and warehouse jobs in second and third place.

Schnell Price-Lambert, the owner of JO’s Learning Academy in Milwaukee, is having the same problem. She will celebrate 25 years in business in 2022 and says that, before the pandemic, she was thriving.

“I like to say that on March 14 I was living the dream. By March 16, I was living a nightmare,” Price-Lambert says.

She had over 50 employees back then. But when she reopened her program last summer, only about seven of them returned. She practically had to start over, hiring all new folks to fill the vacancies.

‘That’s How Desperate It Feels’

The applications trickle in at Baxter Community Center, though it’s hardly enough. Wade has started offering a $150 hiring bonus and a $500 bonus to any existing employee who successfully refers someone for an opening. But even that doesn’t seem to be moving the needle.

When the rare application does come in for JO’s Learning Academy, Price-Lambert has to pay a fee through the hiring service she uses just to view the applicant’s resume. It adds up quickly.

“You run an ad, you pull the resume, and the person doesn’t have the experience you need. Or they’re qualified, but they don’t show up for the interview,” Price-Lambert explains.

Another common scenario: She takes a chance on someone who has no experience working with children (“We have no alternative,” she says), hires them for the job, pays for their fingerprinting and background checks, only to have them not show up on day one.

NAEYC’s survey found—and interviews with child care providers support—that the biggest barrier is wages. In the survey, 78 percent of respondents identified low pay as their top challenge to bringing on more staff, with many providers noting that pandemic unemployment is a better arrangement for applicants than the positions they’re offering, as are most other jobs. Many providers say they would like to offer staff more—and are trying to move in that direction—but under the current system, it’s financially unfeasible to do so. Most are already operating on such tight margins that to reroute more of their revenue to staff would force them out of business, but to charge more per child would drive parents away.

Low wages are not only a hurdle to finding and hiring new teachers. It’s also the main reason many in the field—even those with degrees, experience and expertise—leave it. Eighty-one percent of respondents in the NAEYC survey cited low pay as the key motivation for educators leaving the field, followed by 54 percent who said it was the lack of benefits such as health insurance and vacation time. A third of providers cited exhaustion and burnout as the source.

Wade says she pays lead teachers $14 to $17 an hour, and assistant teachers and floaters start around $12 an hour. She acknowledges that it’s not a livable wage in Grand Rapids. “You can’t pay rent and buy groceries with that,” she says.

The exodus feels especially acute now. Seemingly every storefront has a “We’re Hiring” sign in their window. Those who stand to benefit from the hiring frenzy, including many early childhood educators, are seizing their opportunity.

“You can let someone go at 5 p.m., and they could have a new job at 5:01. That’s how desperate it feels right now,” Price-Lambert says.

Dickerson is seeing this trend play out in real time. She had one staff member recently leave for a job at Sonic, the drive-in fast food restaurant.

“They left, and their words were, ‘I don’t have any responsibilities at this other job. I just stand there and make milkshakes, and then I go home,’” Dickerson recalls.

Dickerson is not angry or resentful, she says. She understands that people have to do what’s best for them.

“The worst thing you have to do is deal with an angry customer whose milkshake was made wrong?” she asks. “It’s phenomenal logic.”

Then adds: “It sounds wonderful some days, as much as I love my job. It sounds wonderful.”