Pandemic, workforce shortage and racial inequality blamed for decline of quality childcare

The pandemic and workforce shortages have created a host of problems in the childcare industry, experts said, especially for communities of color.

Linda Draper is the director for Blossom Heights Child Development Center in west Houston.

Enrollment at her childcare center is close to capacity while staffing is down.

“This year, we have literally had 50% of our staff turnover,” Draper said.

She said prior to the pandemic, she’d have about 20-30 applicants in her hiring pool. These days she said it’s more like four.

“We’re all in a situation where we’re losing staff to fear of COVID, or we’re losing staff to other, maybe possibly, higher-paying jobs,” she added.

The problem is not immune to Draper’s center. The workforce shortage is happening across the entire early childhood industry, said Executive Director of the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children Cody Summerville.

The average childcare worker earned $12 an hour or $25,000 a year in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Forty percent of the early childhood workforce is women of color who are working for subpar wages and they are doing high skilled labor and are not being recognized for that,” Summerville said. “When we are asking individuals to work in such stressful environments and take on such great responsibilities but are not compensating them appropriately, it only perpetuates the inequities and affects on the children that are being served by those teachers.”

He said, as a result, qualified childcare workers are leaving the industry for a chance to make more income.

“There are a lot of centers who had to close because of the pandemic,” he said. “Under enrollment, not being able to find qualified staff to remain open and just higher operating costs due to things like securing PPE and increase in health and safety protocols.”

He said the limited supply of high-quality childcare puts a strain on families depending on that service to go to work.

Associate Director of Early Childhood Education with Children At Risk Makia Thomas said qualified employees are leaving the field due to low wages and many child care centers are closing. She said childcare deserts have jumped 50% compared to the year prior.

“So, in communities of color, it was twice as likely,” Thomas said. “As far as childcare center closures, it has really exacerbated because of the pandemic.”

Thomas said the Children At Risk organization is doing research to ensure high-quality environments in childcare are not reduced and that they’re equitable too.

“Overall, it’s been a struggle for parents to find those programs that they’re most interested in because some of them no longer exist in their communities,” she said. “Also, the distance they may have to travel to ensure that it happens.”

Summerville said the childcare system has a long-standing history of racial injustices.

“Childcare has many racial inequalities that stem from a long history of how childcare was set up in our country and who childcare was set up for,” he said. “We have seen it be historically underfunded, which has not allowed all families to have equitable access to high-quality childcare settings for their children.”

Summerville also said some families may not be able to enroll their children in high-quality development programs because it’s simply too expensive and there are few incentives for childcare providers to accept subsidies because they must offset the cost. He said prior to the pandemic, communities of color were already experiencing childcare challenges.

“Many families of color are on childcare subsidies and experience challenges with finding high-quality care for their children because the options are limited when it comes to a center that has space for a child who is on subsidies,” he said.

He said fixing the current challenge in childcare is going to be an investment from both the state and federal government.

“Childcare is a broken market,” he said. “Families cannot afford to pay anymore and the cost of providing high-quality development and appropriate care to children is really expensive and that costs cannot be passed on to families. Our early childhood professionals working in childcare also cannot afford to shoulder those costs on their own.”

Draper agrees funding is key.

“We all need funneling of funds so that we can pay our teachers wages that are living wages or above.”

The Texas state legislature considered a few early education buildings during the regular legislative session earlier this year but they weren’t able to pass HB1619 or HB2607. The focus now shifts to Build Back Better, a trillion-dollar bill before Congress which would help childhood education.