NEW BEDFORD — With more than 90 pre-qualified families on a waiting list for the infant and toddler Head Start and closures due to staffing shortages, the accessibility and quality of local early education is in a “crisis,” say providers and experts.
There is virtually no availability for child care anywhere in the city, though some slots may open when the school year begins. Jill Fox, the Head Start director, says that almost certainly none of the waiting families will be accepted to Head Start; all of the current spots are filled and she isn’t expecting much turnover.
“Families are looking for support,” Fox said. But the current infrastructure can’t keep up with demand.
The Light called more than a half-dozen private providers to inquire about the availability of infant-care and pre-kindergarten child care. At every single one there was either a waitlist or no response.
Across the South Coast region, there are more than twice as many children below the age of 5 than there are available child care slots, according to a report from the SouthCoast Community Foundation. This mismatch in demand is higher than the state average.
And even if more seats become available, exorbitant prices make child care a burden for most families. In Massachusetts, the most expensive state in the country, the average yearly cost of infant care is more than $20,000, which is more expensive than in-state tuition at public colleges and more than 75% of a minimum-wage income, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
And while subsidies and vouchers exist, they usually “fall far short” of total costs, leading 30% of families who use child care to spend more on it than rent, a special legislative report from this year found.
Parallel to the accessibility crisis, Fox points to a “workforce crisis” that makes it challenging to deliver services for the children she can admit. Fox hasn’t filled all 12 of the vacant staff roles at PACE’s Head Start this year, which was double her normal turnover. Of the vacancies that remain, “it’s all classroom staff,” she said.
So when staff were hit with an outbreak of COVID in July, Fox had no one to call as a substitute. With no other option, she closed down part of her services, asking parents not to bring in their children.
“It’s hard to recruit people for a profession that is so low-paying,” says Titus DosRemedios, the deputy director of Strategies For Children, an early education advocacy group. He points out that early childhood educators could double their pay by teaching kindergarten in a public school. He has seen others leave the profession for jobs in service and retail where they receive higher pay for less complicated work.
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This, plus the added stress of the pandemic, has led to more than 1,400 child care programs (or 23,395 child slots) to close since 2019, according to a legislative report.
For providers like Fox, the workforce and accessibility crises compound on each other. “I can’t bring in more children if I don’t have staff,” she said, even though “we are getting calls [from families] every day.”
Though the child care crises are severe in New Bedford, experts say, it is not a unique predicament. A survey from the Massachusetts Head Start Association found that about half of their centers closed at least once in the previous 30 days due to staffing shortages, said Michelle Haimowitz, the executive director. This “lack of consistency and stability for families” was causing more than 400 children in the state to have their care interrupted each day, she said.
Haimowitz described the current moment as “the deepest workforce crisis I’ve seen.”
Families pay the price for staffing shortages
Shanel Pina, 31, currently has three of her four kids enrolled at PACE’s Head Start program. When any one of the classrooms closes because of the staffing shortage, it usually affects her.
“If they shut down,” Pina said, “I would be a stay-at-home mom.”
There have been at least three recent occasions when either Pina or her husband has been forced to take off work because Head Start couldn’t keep a classroom open. There are also friends who she can ask to watch the kids if she ever has to scramble.
“I have a good support team,” she said. But if she couldn’t take off work or friends weren’t available, Pina said, “I don’t know what else to do with my kids.”
Pina was able to return to the workforce once she found child care. On a nine-to-three shift, she supports adults with behavioral and mental health issues while her husband works for Amazon.
By helping parents return to work, securing child care can have profound economic benefits — even beyond the future earnings and improved well-being of their kids.
In fact, more than $2.7 billion could be realized through a better funded early childhood education system, according to an April report from the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. That shocking number was reached through conservative estimates, which assume that only 10% of stay-at-home parents without child care would return to work — thereby earning higher wages, contributing more to the tax base, and spending more often.
The study recognizes that benefits would be greatest for women, who overwhelmingly are displaced from the workforce to tend to the almost 100,000 children in Massachusetts who don’t have access to child care or pre-kindergarten services.
It would likely cost $1.5 billion to revamp the state’s child care system, a legislative report found, demonstrating that every dollar invested in child care reaps greater returns.
However, there are many obstacles to appropriately funding child care. Even Head Start, for example, which uses federal dollars to fund child care for low-income families, doesn’t accurately capture regional needs. In Massachusetts, the minimum wage has outpaced the federal baseline due to higher costs of living, meaning a family earning the minimum wage here actually earns too much to qualify.
All the families at PACE, then, had to earn less than minimum wage. Some have experienced homelessness, others are undocumented.
Once a family has qualified, explains Fox, then families can go back to work — they won’t be kicked out for exceeding the income threshold.
But, with the current staffing shortages, qualifying for care isn’t always enough to receive it.
Paige Oliver spent more than two years on Head Start’s waiting list before she could enroll her oldest son. After waiting to enroll, the recent closures have been “horrible,” she said.
The closures are “affecting me and my income,” Oliver said. She has been forced to take off work without sufficient notice, and already she won’t be able to take a vacation this year, because she had to use her personal days when Head Start closed.
“I’m a single parent,” she said. “How do you expect me to pay you?”
Oliver, who is on a partial voucher for Head Start, has been squeezed by the predicament: without working she couldn’t afford child care, but with the current shortages she sometimes can’t go to work.
Though frustrated, Oliver said she hopes the center can find a solution. Now with two children enrolled, she has seen tremendous progress in their development and well-being.
“There’s more structure here,” she said. Head Start staff have a higher level of training than at most child care facilities, per federal guidelines, and Oliver has found her children’s teachers to be friendly and communicative.
Solutions on the horizon
On a steaming hot day at the Buttonwood Park Zoo last week, Julie Mador stood at the front gate to welcome families and pass out maps.
Mador, who is responsible for registering all students in the district for kindergarten, organizes the annual “Smooth Sailing Into Kindergarten” event, where this year nearly 1,000 “future Whalers” began their school journey beneath a banner that addressed them as the “Class of 2035.”
These children and their families were streaming in to meet teachers at tents scattered around the zoo. Next to the elephants were the kindergarten teachers from Hathaway Elementary. Jacobs Elementary was behind the house of monkeys. Every New Bedford elementary school was present to greet the incoming families — plus two-dozen or so community partner organizations, including Little People’s College and PACE’s Head Start — with activities and informational fliers.
For Mador, the event is the starting gun for a brief window of opportunity.
“Children need to be reading by third grade,” she said. “Even if it’s in their native, non-English language.” Otherwise, she said, those children are extremely likely to not graduate from high school.
Between 30-40% of these almost-kindergarteners didn’t attend pre-K, according to Mador and Lesley Guertin, the district’s early childhood manager. Children who attended pre-kindergarten are significantly more likely to hit their reading milestones. Though registration data from this year isn’t yet finalized, the district’s comprehensive entrance survey will also track the behavioral, emotional, and speech and language development of incoming students.
This information is shaping an ongoing “three-year plan for universal pre-K,” said Dr. Sonia Walmsley, executive director of educational access at New Bedford Public Schools.
The plan is to use COVID relief dollars in conjunction with a grant known as CPPI to expand the number of child care seats across the city. Rather than building brand new programs, these funds will support the needs of community partners — including by providing transportation, meals, and salary support — so that they can extend their hours of operation or even add more capacity.
North Star, a significant community partner for the district, already has plans to open a new child care facility, with construction set to begin on a lot in the South End that once was the site of the St. Hyacinth Church. The district will support the day-to-day costs of North Star’s child care services with these grants.
And while the funds are flowing outward to community partners, the district will get credit for the increased enrollment, which “unlocks” additional state Chapter 70 aid, according to district financial manager Andrew O’Leary.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” O’Leary says, but the partnership to increase child care “will benefit all parties.”
Meanwhile, advocates at the state level are successfully making child care a bigger priority. Both Haimowitz, who leads the Mass. Head Start Association, and DosRemedios, of Strategies For Children, were involved in efforts that led to historic policy achievements.
First, Gov. Charlie Baker approved a state budget for the upcoming fiscal year that included $6 billion for education, including record amounts earmarked for the expansion of early childhood education.
At nearly the same time, legislation was pushing its way through the state’s legislature that takes advantage of these dollars. The bill, which is now expected to come before the House Ways and Means committee in January, will largely overhaul the early childhood education system by significantly increasing the eligibility for state subsidies (from those earning 50% of the state median income to 125%) while also increasing the rate paid to teachers by providing grants to child care centers.
Haimowitz sat on a special commission for early education and care that advised legislators on what the bill should include. She says that she is “really pleased with the direction of the legislation and the degree to which it supports families,” though she added that there’s always more to be done.
DosRemedios said he believes that more people are understanding that early childhood education ought to be a public good. “With high-quality early education and child care you save money in the long run,” he said. “It’s still new to many people’s mental model of what taxes should pay for.”
These experts are among those in the field who frequently cite that as much as 90% of brain development happens by the time a child turns 5 years old. So for students, kindergarten is very late to begin interventions or to start promoting literacy.
Email Colin Hogan at email@example.com.