TAMPA, Fla .– At the Love and Glory Learning Center in Tampa, the months of low enrollment due to the pandemic have changed.
“We are fully enrolled, but we are understaffed. We need more teachers,” Deputy Principal Erica Agee said. “We have a waiting list, so we can’t take more children until we hire more staff.”
It turns out that waiting lists at daycares due to understaffing have become the new normal after the pandemic.
“At two of my schools, I can’t take kids anymore until I hire more staff,” said Juanita Walker, owner and CEO of Sheyes Academy schools in Liberty City and Brownsville.
It’s a problem that plagues preschool learning centers across the state. After a year of declining student enrollments due to the pandemic, the vaccine is helping push those numbers up, but with more children, child care programs are in desperate need of trained staff to meet this need .
Children’s Nest in Hillsborough County has seven locations and provides care for children aged 12 months to 12 years.
More than half of its centers are desperate to hire more staff.
“We are going step by step. We use Indeed ads and we offer login bonuses,” said one of the centre’s directors, Shiree Gilbert.
But enrollment bonuses are still not enough to attract the three additional teachers his center needs. It is also not enough to attract staff to an industry that has long struggled to find and keep good workers.
“I think we’re all competing with everyone else,” Gilbert said.
Tripp Crouch owns the centers with his family and can only theorize about what is causing this unprecedented staff shortage crisis.
“I think there are government benefits preventing people from coming back to work and the economy has not yet fully recovered,” he said. In addition to shuffling staff daily according to the needs of the center, the company is now using a temp agency for the first time to fill in the gaps.
Yet the demand for child care services currently exceeds the staff needed to serve families. Without forgetting that student-teacher ratios must be respected at all times and that early childhood daycare teachers must respect certain standards.
“We have a lot of classes and you turn people away when there’s physical space; it’s weird. We’ll be really happy when it’s all behind us,” Crouch said.
But how long this hiring crisis will last in the industry remains unknown.
The child care industry is vital, but high and low wages make it harder to get help.
In Florida, the median income for preschool teachers is just over $ 12 an hour, a few cents above the national average.
But unlike other industries that are also struggling to find workers, child care centers can’t just raise wages or rates.
Dr. Eileen Fluney owns heavenly Christian schools in Hialeah. She also sits on the board of directors of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami. She believes it is time for the government to step in and help child care programs pay for workers demanding more competitive wages. One-off cash flows from pandemic-related bailouts are not enough to keep salaries higher. Without government help, Fluney worries the centers will be forced to hire whoever they can.
“You’re going to grab someone quickly and train them. So that doesn’t mean they’re accredited or have what is needed; that’s my personal fear,” Fluney said.
“Without child care, no one is going back to work,” said Aruna Gilbert, program director for the Early Learning Coalition in Palm Beach County. “You have to have a safe place to put your children, so this has become a critical issue.”
As a result, the Palm Beach County Early Learning Coalition and private partners have developed a new program that helps offset the costs of training and screening new recruits. These expenses, which can total more than $ 500 per teacher, are generally the responsibility of the centers. Gilbert hopes the program, which starts with 25 teachers and $ 125,000 in funding, will help centers desperate to hire more staff by leaving them more money to offer more competitive salaries.
“Absolutely, we think it’s going to make a difference,” Gilbert said.
But across the state, other counties continue to struggle as early learning centers simply struggle to stay open and retain what they have and who they have.
The American Families Plan money aims to raise the minimum wage in the industry, but questions and debates remain about how and how it will reward those with more experience.