Catherine Morrill Day Nursery Teacher Janet Luther goes through a lesson with Olive Carbone. A new effort underway by Starting Strong aims to increase access to quality child care. Courtesy / Catherine Morrill Day Nursery

PORTLAND — Lori Moses, executive director of the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, has a waiting list two to three years long. Throughout her 35 years in the business, the demand for childcare has far exceeded supply.

“There is a dire need for infant and toddler care,” said Moses, whose child care center on Danforth Street serves 80 children from 6 weeks old to 5 years old and is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

She hopes a venture launched earlier this month by Starting Strong will help make childcare more accessible for families in the area by focusing on boosting pay for childcare providers, which would attract more people to the industry. The initiative, Portland Works for Kids, aims to make quality childcare more plentiful and more affordable for parents across the city.

According to Starting Strong, a Portland-based organization that has worked on school readiness issues since 2013, there are 3,500 children under age 5 in Portland. The 56 home based and center based child care providers in the city have room for 2,271 children.

The need to make improvements to the child care industry, Starting Strong Executive Director Katie Soucy said, was reinforced through a recent employer survey from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

In the survey, 70% of respondents said their employees have challenges finding affordable, quality child care. Close to nine out of 10 respondents agreed increasing access to quality childcare should be a focus for the community, and 85% indicated an employee had an unanticipated absence due to child care issues in the last year.

Sasha Shunk and her students play a game of Stack Up at Shunk Child Care, an accredited family child care center in Portland. Courtesy / Shunk Child Care

Portland Works for Kids and its community partners have formed a Workforce Development Committee to focus on increased pay for childcare providers; a Revenue Task Force to identify and create alternative funding sources; an Advocacy Committee to reach out to city leaders, business owners and community members to support policy changes for the childcare system; and a Quality Improvement Committee.

Soucy said Portland Works for Kids plans to offer mini-grants to child care providers to implement curriculum and facility improvements, pair newer childcare providers with veteran mentors in the field, and work on finding alternative revenue streams to fund childcare programs.

Access has become more of a problem now with the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused some childcare centers, including home-based facilities, to close. A March survey from the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children found 88% of licensed child care programs said they would not survive or were unsure if they could reopen if they remained closed for more than a month.

Moses, whose center has been closed for more than a month, plans to reopen, she hopes, by mid-May.

Sasha Shunk, owner of Shunk Child Care in Portland, said the mid-March closure of her business, which serves 16 children 9 months old to 5 years old, forced her to lay off her three full-time employees. Although some families were able to continue to pay a portion of their weekly fees, money is tight.

“This leaves me with no funds to make improvements to my program so I can reopen, such as purchasing a no touch thermometer and extra disinfecting supplies,” she said. “As an early childhood provider, I am part of the workforce that drives the workforce. If I don’t reopen, my families will be unable to go back to work.”

A financial boost may be on the way. Gov. Janet Mills’ nearly $11 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act includes “relief for child care providers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Aside from worrying about reopening, Shunk said the cost of childcare and employee pay are plaguing the industry.

“Portland families cannot afford to pay what quality child care actually costs,” said Shunk, who has been operating her center, accredited by the National Association for Family Child Care, for close to 17 years.

The average elementary school teacher pay was $39,150 in 2018, Shunk said, while an early education provider’s compensation was $22,666. The discrepancy, Moses said, makes it hard for centers to attract educators.

“We need to find a different way to fund early childhood care and education programs,” Shunk said. “This could mean partnering with businesses to fund child care slots for their employees. It could also mean moving towards funding early childhood programs just as we do our public schools. Access to high quality early care and education should be a public good.”

Moses and Shunk are not alone in trying to find workers and competing to maintain her niche as public pre-school programs are developed. Some programs across the state, she said, have had to close classrooms because they couldn’t be staffed.

“I used to get 30 to 40 applicants and now I am lucky to get two or three qualified candidates,” Moses said.

Starting Strong began looking into access and affordability of child care a year and a half ago through a grant from the Maine Community Foundation.

“We know there is a lack of it it or it is really expensive where it does exist,” Soucy said of quality childcare.

Portland Works for Kids’ community partners include: United Way of Greater Portland’s Women United, the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, Maine Roads to Quality Professional Development Network, Family Child Care Association of Maine, Greater Portland Workforce Initiative and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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