Amid COVID-19, staffing woes plague childcare centers 

Workers face health, childcare concerns 

BETWEEN ITS SIX large childcare centers in Boston and Cambridge, Nurtury Early Education has had to shutter eight classrooms during the pandemic – which translates to serving around 70 fewer children. 

While center enrollment is down, the problem isn’t just a lack of interest from families – it is a lack of staff. Of the approximately 100 classroom teachers that Nurtury employed pre-pandemic, 16 have left since March, and 10 remain on leave or furlough. There are about 30 vacancies systemwide. 

“We were already worried about sufficient staffing before the pandemic,” said Nurtury president and CEO Laura Perille. “With additional pandemic challenges, we’re worried we’ll lose people to the childcare sector permanently. And when enrollment rebounds in the spring, childcare’s going to be in a world of hurt because we don’t have the pipeline at the ready.” 

The pandemic has focused attention to the importance of childcare, as parents struggle to work with young children at home. But it also highlighted the long-standing problem of retaining a workforce of quality childcare providers – a problem that has become far worse as many childcare workers have been forced to stay home, due to their own health concerns or childcare woes. The impact can trickle down to families as centers are forced to shut classrooms, reduce hours, and shuffle teachers around 

Nurtury, a nonprofit that serves 400 low-income children in childcare centers in Boston and the surrounding urban communities, reduced hours in some centers and has shut classrooms at the last minute because of inadequate staffing. That comes on top of closures due to coronavirus exposures. “That’s enormously inconvenient for families. It’s not normally the way Nurtury operates,” Perille said. 

Bill Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, said childcare providers have long struggled to retain talented employees, due to the low pay. The average salary for a childcare worker is around $30,000, up from $25,000 three to five years ago, Eddy said. A teacher generally makes more than that, while a teacher’s assistant earns less. Around three-quarters of the childcare system in Massachusetts is funded through tuition paid by parents, while one-quarter is paid by the state and federal governments through subsidies for homeless children, foster children, and children from poor families. 

Eddy said the childcare workforce is almost entirely female. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some older workers and pregnant workers left due to health concerns, while teachers who were parents had to quit to care for their own children. 

Our teaching staff hasn’t had the option to be remote,” Eddy said. “And attracting new teachers into this profession right now, which is never easy to begin with given the pay scales, has gotten more difficult.” 

A preschooler busy painting at the The Community Group in Lawrence. (Courtesy photo)

Interviews with four of the state’s large childcare agencies that serve primarily low-income children found that all of them were struggling with staffing problems. While these agencies are likely to have less money than private pay centers, they also have some advantages, since a larger agency can benefit from economies of scale and can shift teachers around to deal with enrollment shifts. Eddy said the problems these agencies are experiencing are a microcosm of what is occurring industry-wide 

When the Guild of St. Agnes in Worcester County closed its childcare centers in March, it was serving 1,165 children. Today, it has 785. “We have physical capacity for 1,100 but don’t have staffing capacity,” said deputy director Sharon MacDonald. While some families aren’t ready to send kids back, some centers have waiting lists. 

One added problem is that more staff are needed to serve the same number of children. Pre-COVID, if a center opened at 7:30 a.m. but only a handful of kids arrived then, the center could combine kids from four different classes with two teachers. Now, classes can no longer combine, so each classroom must be staffed for all open hours. Because teachers take days off, and a teacher from one class can no longer cover a different class due to coronavirus restrictions, the center has to pay three teachers per classroom to ensure two are always available. 

MacDonald said hiring is difficult and many applicants have no experience. The organization recently hired six new employees to staff a remote learning center – one quit after a week, another called in sick with a muscle spasm on the second day and never returned, a third called in for three of five days, and a fourth just called in for a day.  

A preschool classroom at The Community Group in Lawrence in the summer of 2020. (Courtesy photo)

Stephen Huntley, executive director of the Valley Opportunity Council in Hampden County, said his organization has lost around 30 out of 100 teachers during the pandemic, and shut down childcare centers in Holyoke and Chicopee, each of which had served around 30 children. Huntley said those families were able to move to other centers in the network, but that has made those centers more crowded. The council has had to turn down families to avoid having more than 17 kids in one classroom – and Huntley said, ideally, he would like class sizes to be smaller. 

Huntley said one big problem his staffers are facing is the need to be home with their own kids. Some of the staff were grandparents who quit their jobs to stay home with grandchildren, so their parents could work. “Our staffing is almost exclusively female,” Huntley said. “Unfortunately, the female workforce is harder hit by the pressures of taking care of children who are remote learners.” Some older staff pushed up their retirement dates to avoid the health risks of working amid the pandemic. 

Staffers who leave temporarily may be eligible for federally funded pandemic leave. Once they exhaust that time, it is up to the agency whether to pay them. Some agencies continue to pay a portion of workers’ salaries, while others do not. 

Like other centers, the Valley Opportunity Council tries to maintain three teachers per classroom since teachers can no longer cover for other classrooms – although practically, that is rarely possible. There are also more frequent absences, since it is not uncommon for a staffer to become quarantined after someone in their household is exposed to COVID-19. “It’s a house of cards. It really is a very delicate balance,” Huntley said. 

Perille, of Nurtury, said the strain of the job is also greater, with staff required to wear masks all day, enforce social distancing guidelines, and rearrange classroom activities — all while worrying about COVID. “People enter the field of childcare and education with a willingness to do direct service but you don’t assume you’re a front line first responder and critical infrastructure worker,” Perille said. “You wouldn’t expect to be gloved and gowned and masked for 10 hours a day to care for children.” 

Perille said teachers also have not been prioritized for testing – so she has had teachers with a cough who are out for several days waiting for a COVID test to come back. 

Maria Gonzalez Moeller, CEO of The Community Group in Lawrence, said with Lawrence being a hotspot for COVID-19 infections, staff are likely to be exposed through their daily interactions. She is also seeing “teacher fatigue,” where teachers get burned out from the stress and take time off – then face travel restrictions that require quarantine periods when they return. 

The Community Group offers bonus pay and provides on-site childcare to try to retain workers. It has hired new employees, but most are inexperienced and can only work alongside a more senior teacher. Moeller said while she has not yet had to close a classroom due to staffing, “We are getting close to that point.”