There were not enough daycare centers in the Haute Vallée before the pandemic. Now it’s worse

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Bolander said she and her husband, Richard, had a “perfectly orchestrated system” in place to ensure their children got the care they needed so parents could work.

But in the spring of 2020, Kidsview Academy Preschool & Daycare in Enfield closed for good, leaving their boys – then aged 3 and 16 months – with no place to go. They rushed in and eventually found child care spaces in White River Junction, but it was not convenient for them coming from Canaan and working in Lebanon. Additionally, COVID-19 protocols meant that a cold could result in several days of missed work waiting for test results and symptoms to clear up, said Sarah Bolander.

The Bolanders, who are from the Midwest and had no families in the Upper Valley to help with child care, moved to suburban Chicago in March of this year. There were several reasons for the move. They wanted to be closer to their family and Sarah, an occupational therapist, was looking for new job opportunities. But they were also looking for better access to child care.

The difficulty in accessing child care “kind of put the nail in the coffin,” she said. “We can’t do that (and) be able to work consistently. ”

The child care shortage is not new. Before the pandemic, the Upper Valley was short of around 2,000 child care spaces, according to a 2018 report from the University of New Hampshire. But now, in the midst of the reopening, the industry has fallen even further behind. Child care, along with a housing shortage, are among the reasons employers in the area say they are struggling to find employees.

Randolph’s Vermont Technical College allows some workers to continue working remotely, in part due to childcare issues, said Pat Moulton, president of the college. But some positions, such as babysitting and student roles, require someone to be on campus, she said.

To fill jobs that require in-person work, “we struggle like everyone else,” Moulton said.

In some industries, such as restaurants and manufacturing, “you can’t do anything if people don’t show up,” she said.

Many Upper Valley child care providers are unable to fill the number of spaces for which they are licensed because they do not have the staff to meet the required child-to-adult ratio. . Some have also reduced their hours due to staff issues.

The workforce situation at Ready Set Grow, a for-profit provider that operates child care centers in Claremont and Enfield, is critical, said Linda Tremblay, the managing director.

Before the pandemic, the Claremont center, which is approved for 125 children, had 95. Now, it is “the very sad number of 38”, she declared. Ready Set Grow’s Enfield location, which opened in the former Kidsview Academy space last summer, is licensed for 51 children, but has only 21 children enrolled.

In both cases, says Tremblay, staffing is the limiting factor.

“It’s a struggle, for real,” she said, speaking one day when she had to postpone an interview with a potential employee because she had to replace a current employee who declared himself ill. .

“We cannot compete”

Salaries and benefits are part of the challenge. Ready Set Grow had to increase the starting salary for assistants from a low of $ 9 before the pandemic to $ 14 now. Still, Ms. Tremblay said that was not enough to keep pace with the larger centers which can offer both more money and benefits, she said.

“We can’t compete with this,” she said.

She has also lost staff to other industries, pointing the finger at employers such as Home Depot and Walmart, where she says employees can find less stressful work for more money. She doesn’t blame them. She encourages her college-aged daughter to seek another career.

“I would like my retirement home to be paid for,” said Tremblay.

However, Tremblay intends to stay put despite the job offers at $ 5 more per hour.

“If I weren’t so invested” in the job, she says. “It’s tempting.”

Labor issues are less acute at the Norwich child care center, which is operating at around full capacity with 63 children, said Lisa Sjostrom, the executive director. The nonprofit center offers a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour and is assisted by work-study students from nearby Dartmouth College. The daycare also benefits from having its own building, and therefore not having to pay rent or a mortgage, and has received grants related to COVID-19, she said.

Yet staffing is a challenge. Sjostrom said she found she was in competition with some public preschool programs for teachers. In public schools, licensed preschool teachers can earn more money and spend summers off, Sjostrom said.

“To do it really, really well, you need a different model,” she said.

Sjostrom applauded Vermont’s recent passage of Bill 45, which increases state subsidy for child care for families. But she said it wouldn’t necessarily help increase wages or other benefits for workers, as it doesn’t increase the amount paid to the centers and instead shifts more of that burden from families to the community. State.

The law also creates three workforce development programs: scholarships for current early childhood providers, scholarships for future early childhood providers, and student loan repayment assistance. He also directs the Joint Fiscal Office to assess the economic impacts and potential funding mechanisms to accommodate Vermont’s regulated child care system.

Support providers

More information is needed on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the child care industry, said Jess Carson, assistant research professor at the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH, who wrote a 2018 report that found Upper Valley lacked 2,000 child care slots.

Carson is currently pursuing a follow-up study to examine factors that have helped support child care providers in the Twin States.

She said she didn’t need to complete the study to see COVID-19 exacerbating pre-existing workforce challenges in the child care industry. Parents pay as much as they can – care can easily cost over $ 1,000 per month per child – but early childhood educators can make more money in what she described as ” frankly easier jobs ”.

Although COVID-19 has increased public recognition of how child care supports other economic sectors, Carson said, “The problem is not resolved.”

Bob Haynes, former executive director of the Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., pointed out that child care was “the biggest barrier to workforce implementation.”

Haynes continues to work on some special projects, including the creation of a new daycare center in Randolph. It aims to make daycare “more accessible to more people more easily,” he said.

In the meantime, Sarah Bolander has found a part-time job as an occupational therapist for a home care organization in Illinois, which she says gives her more flexibility than her job at Dartmouth. -Hitchcock Medical Center. The family found part-time care for the boys, Ben and Zach, now 4 and 2 years old.

“Someone has to be there to bring a sick child home,” she said. Being available for your children is “what is most important. Working is not the most important thing.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.

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