New NCDHHS tool highlights how childcare woes pre-date pandemic

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- While multiple industries suffer from workforce shortages, leaders in childcare say the pandemic merely shines a light on problems that pre-date the existence of COVID-19.

The NC Dept. of Health and Human Services has launched a new interactive tool, the NC Early Care and Learning Dashboard which tracks enrollment and childcare program site information starting in 2018 through Nov. 2021.

Jenna Nelson, the executive director of NC Early Education Coalition, said the data shows a steady decline in the number of sites statewide; the demand outpacing supply of existing licensed childcare programs to the degree that much of the state is considered as having childcare deserts.

"The interesting thing about childcare is we were already in crisis before the pandemic," Nelson said. "When COVID hit, it just exacerbated the problem even further."

At the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, childcare programs were among the first to reopen to serve other frontline workers who needed childcare in order to go to work.

Since then, the dashboard tells the story of how child enrollment has dipped just as staffing levels have dropped.

In Wake County over the last two years, enrollment has gone down by about 15 percent; staffing at centers has dropped by nearly 13 percent.

Nelson said families have pulled their children out of daycare centers for a number of reasons including not wanting to risk COVID exposure and full-time working parents unable to juggle extended classroom closures.

At the same time, centers have struggled to recruit and retain staff.

"There may be people who are eager who are just not qualified by the state standards," said Eboni Brickhouse, executive director, First Presbyterian Child Development Center. "So when we go through the hiring process, for us it is an extended period of time because we want to make sure we have quality staff entering."

Brickhouse said she has offered candidates competitive wages.

"Even with those incentives and offering signing bonuses, and longevity bonuses, performance bonuses, it's hard to get people to follow through on that interview process," she said.

At Country Sunshine Children's Center, executive director Jan Edmonds, said she has been fortunate to maintain her full-time core staff, but the pool of candidates to replace them should the need arise is practically non-existent.

"Since March of 2020 I have not had anyone in Early Childhood Education answer any ads," Edmonds said in a statement sent to ABC11. "We are always very interested and do hire those who are willing to learn but they are not qualified initially to carry out the program. I am very concerned about Early Childhood Education and the future for the children across the state. There appears to be a lack of people making this field a career.

The state provided money through the stabilization grant to help increase pay for early childhood teachers. This has helped encourage my staff to stay in the field but as of now has not increased the amount of people joining the field. The first five years is essential to the success of every child and we need educated teachers desperately."

It's not only the smaller, local centers coming up short on staff.

Bright Horizons at the Forum, part of a large, national chain of childcare centers is also hurting when it comes to getting enough qualified teachers in the classroom.

Jessica Ramsey, a program director for the company, sent the following statement to ABC11 highlighting the incentives offered:

"Just like every industry the childcare industry is facing challenges when it comes to recruiting. Our recruiting team continues to search for the top teacher talent in the area. Through our Horizons Teacher Degree Program, all Bright Horizons educators have the opportunity to earn early education college degrees for free among many other benefits like health insurance and wellness options, family support, time off and financial planning assistance. We are also offering signing and referral bonuses."

Nelson said federal stabilization grants have helped some in the way of recruitment and retention, but the need is great and requires a long-term solution.

"Because we need to attract, retain, high qualified, educated, caring individuals who need to be able to sustain their own families, there's no way the market works where families like yours and mine can afford to pay those teachers, so we have to have government investment in these young children," she said.

Brickhouse, optimistic for the future, said this could be the time when support grows for those who support and nurture our children.

"The attention now is focused on our industry to show that it is really essential work and what we do each day is really important to the health of our overall community," she said.
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