Gina Forbes holds her 13-month-old daughter, Selena Forbes-Morales, in the playground at Roots and Fruits child care in South Portland on May 20. Roots and Fruits is closing in June after 16 years in business. Forbes, who is director of the child care, said the business broke even pre-pandemic but the last year has only exacerbated existing issues and it is now operating at a deficit. In order to stay running, it would have to cut pay to teachers and raise tuition, and that would not be true to the school’s mission. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When she wakes up each morning, Christine Biyoga sends up a prayer that today is not the day she gets sick.

Like many other early childhood educators, Biyoga doesn’t have health insurance, and not only does she love her job teaching at Growing Learners in Portland, but it also means a highly coveted day care spot for her daughter – something that was nearly impossible to find before she started working in child care herself.

But child care is in crisis in Maine and across the country. More than 170 day care operators in the state have closed since the pandemic began, and those that are still in business can’t find enough employees to staff them, in part because wages are so low.

Politicians have taken notice. Federal and state aid programs, as well as a few Maine bills geared toward revamping early childhood education and retaining a strong workforce, are on the horizon. While providers and industry experts hope more funding and programs will make a difference, they worry the system needs more than money – it needs a complete restructuring.

Teacher turnover rates are high. Without enough teachers, centers cannot accept more children. Without more children, centers – which are funded entirely by tuition – won’t make enough money. They then must make a choice: Increase tuition or close their doors. It’s an industry fraught with challenges, stuck in a vicious circle that experts say has been created by a system that doesn’t work for families, employees or operators.

Early childhood education is hard work, requiring patience and dedication, Biyoga said, but the pay, often just barely above minimum wage, doesn’t reflect that.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for child care workers in Maine is $13.84 an hour, or about $28,790 per year. Minimum wage is $12.15.

At her last job, Biyoga had five different co-teachers in six months. Overwhelmed by the toddlers, unhappy with their pay, they quit.

“If it’s not your passion, you don’t stay for very long,” she said.

According to Rita Furlow, senior policy analyst at Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group, the child care field is at a precipice.

“Even before the pandemic, things were really challenging in this field,” she said, and the last year has “opened up and really laid bare all of the issues that child care has really been struggling with for years.”

A YEAR OF CLOSURES

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Roots and Fruits preschool in South Portland was a “break-even” organization, director Gina Forbes said.

The school is licensed to serve 49 children but in a regular year might have 35. Right now, thanks to a mix of parent choice and staffing challenges, the school enrolls about 20.

With fewer students but increased personnel costs because of the pandemic (more people are needed to help kids come in and out of the building each day), the small rainy day fund is long gone. Roots and Fruits is operating at a deficit.

The school will close June 9, joining 172 other centers or home-based day cares that have closed in the past year.

“How can we participate (in) an ongoing model that’s not sustainable, not fair to families, not fair to teachers?” Forbes said. “The honorable decision was to close at the end of the school year to give families time to find other alternatives and be done with this part of our journey.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, another 111 have opened in the same amount of time, so the net loss is about 61 centers, or roughly 3 percent, of the roughly 1,800 child care facilities at the start of the pandemic. But that number does not reflect changes in capacity, which many providers have had to limit, whether due to social distancing, staffing challenges or other reasons.

A spring survey by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children found that 58 percent of the nearly 600 center-based providers that responded are understaffed and 43 percent cannot meet the demand for care and have a growing waitlist. The same percentage of family-based providers said they also cannot meet the demand, yet 34 percent also said they are underenrolled.  Nearly 30 percent of family-based providers and 44 percent of center-based providers said they are operating at a deficit.

Nationally, the outlook isn’t much better.

An exact count of closures across the country is not yet available, but 166,800 fewer people were working in child care in December 2020 than had been in those jobs in December 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gina Forbes holds her 13-month-old daughter Selena Forbes-Morales in the playground at Roots and Fruits childcare in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Among child care centers that have remained open, 81 percent enroll fewer kids today than they did pre-pandemic, according to a survey conducted last fall by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional organization for early educators.

It was a difficult decision for Forbes to close the preschool that has been part of the community for more than 15 years, but she said she didn’t see a way out.

“The only way to get more money is to charge more,” she said. “Families (are) already completely tapped out.”

Even with a few months’ notice, she knows it won’t be easy for families to find another spot.

A lot of centers theoretically have the capacity for more kids, because many parents have pulled their children out of care while they work from home. But centers cannot enroll more students, because they can’t find teachers to fill the positions and keep the proper student-to-staff ratios.

Infant care requires three times more teachers than kindergarten. Maine requires one teacher for every four infants, eight toddlers or 12 children 5 or older.

Forbes is having a hard enough time finding care for her 13-month-old daughter. For now, she can take her to work, but while she figures out what’s next for her career, she can’t bank on that always being an option. Hiring a nanny is outside the family budget, but infant and toddler care is in even higher demand than preschool. Waitlists, in many cases, are over a year long.

A LABOR SHORTAGE

Roots and Fruits’ space won’t be empty for long.

In August, Chickadee Infant and Toddler Care will open in its place, hopefully meeting a desperate need for the community’s youngest residents – a silver lining to closing, Forbes said.

Chickadee, licensed for 48 kids, will offer a preschool option for the first year, with first priority given to displaced Roots and Fruits students, co-owner Hollie McLachlan said. After that, the school will transition exclusively to infant and toddler care.

McLachlan has been aware of the desperate need for high-quality infant and toddler care for a while. She was on five waitlists for her second child before she was even pregnant, she said, but wasn’t impressed by what she was seeing.

Hollie McLachlan of Falmouth with her 3-year-old daughter, Betsy, on May 18. McLachlan is opening a child care center in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Children and babies need love and they need nurturing,” she said. “I wasn’t seeing that from where I was looking.”

So she decided to do something about it.

Chickadee Infant and Toddler Care has already had to overcome hurdles.

McLachlan and co-owner Amy Crowley initially hoped to open in Portland, but the city’s hazard pay rule requires low-wage workers to be paid 1.5 times their normal pay during a state of emergency. They said they’d be operating at nearly a $20,000 deficit just to get the doors open.

“We were failing before we could begin,” she said.

They found the spot in South Portland, but McLachlan was quickly “blindsided” by another problem: She can’t find any employees.

“I knew that the market was rough, but I had no idea that it was barren,” she said.

Ads largely go unanswered. She expects the few who do apply are doing so only because unemployment assistance requires it. When she reaches out to them she’s usually met with radio silence. If she does get a response, candidates want what they’re making on unemployment, and Chickadee can’t offer that without raising prices to the point that they “become elitist and continue to marginalize the families who need us most,” she said.

She’s trying to get creative about attraction and retention, offering sign-on bonuses, extra vacation time, contracts, financial aid reimbursements. She needs to hire 12 employees. So far she has three.

With fewer teachers, she will be forced to offer fewer slots, but as parents start to re-enter the workforce they are more sought after than ever. The school already has a waitlist.

If anyone should have been able to find child care quickly, it’s Katie Soucy.

The director of Starting Strong, a state coalition of organizations trying to increase access to early childhood education, she has a vast network of connections and a comprehensive knowledge of how the system works.

Even so, it was a struggle.

She went on a waitlist before she even told her family she was pregnant. It took 11 months, but she found a spot just weeks before her maternity leave was set to end.

The center was close to her husband’s office, but last summer he changed jobs and suddenly they were driving two hours per day from their home in Topsham to their son’s day care in Lewiston and back. The center later closed because of COVID-19.

They had to start from square one. Six or seven waiting lists later, she scored the last spot with a home provider in town. Now Soucy just hopes his teacher doesn’t retire soon.

A PUBLIC GOOD

Furlow, the policy analyst, believes the root of the problem lies in how the industry is funded: entirely by tuition from parents.

According to the Department for Human Health and Services, the cost of child care in Maine ranges from a low of $6,500 for full-time preschool care in Aroostook County to a high of $15,756 for infant care in Cumberland County.

“We need, as a state, as a country, to start thinking about this the way we think about public schools,” Furlow said. “It’s a public good. This is education for children, and it is essential to families working. We need to figure out a way to fund it and structure it in a way that’s going to meet the needs of families and provide a decent living for the almost exclusively women who are in the field.”

Elizabeth Pope, incoming vice president of the board of Youth and Family Outreach, a nonprofit child care center in Portland, said the past year has been “constant Band-Aids and stopgaps” instead of a solution.

She knows firsthand how harsh the landscape can be. Before her son got off the waiting list at Youth and Family Outreach, her entire salary was going toward child care. Even though her husband made more money, he wound up quitting his job to take care of their younger child full time. Fierce feminists, they wanted to do their part to lower the statistics of women who have left the workforce since the pandemic, she said.

While both men and women have dropped out of the workforce in alarming numbers since the pandemic began, the state’s women’s workforce participation since last spring has hovered around 55 percent, the lowest it has been in 30 years.

They are lucky to come from a two-income household and they were able to afford the change, but for many, Pope said, “child care access can be the difference between getting a foothold into the middle class or getting further knocked down into poverty.” Without child care, parents cannot work.

Hollie McLachlan of Falmouth watches her 3-year-old daughter Betsy as she plays in the family’s yard Tuesday. McLachlan is opening a childcare center in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

An estimated 71 percent of children under the age of 6 live in families with both parents in the workforce.

The state’s resources – such as an underused, little-known child care choices website – aren’t up to snuff, she said, and parents don’t know where to begin.

“Until your kid turns 4 or 5 you’re just on your own, completely left to fend for yourself,” Pope said.

Lori Moses, director of the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland, agreed that early childhood education is a “public good.”

“It’s the business model that doesn’t work,” she said.

If parents can’t find child care, they can’t go to work. If businesses don’t have workers, the economy suffers.

“We are the workforce behind the workforce,” she said, yet the field is not “funded in a way that reflects its value.”

HOPE FOR HELP

Tara Williams, director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, is optimistic that help may be coming.

Under the American Rescue Plan, Maine’s child care providers will be eligible for more than $120 million in federal funds to help keep their doors open, and ultimately to make care more available and affordable for parents, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a research group that focuses on lower-income Mainers.

Gov. Janet Mills also announced this month that the Department of Health and Human Services will use $10 million from the plan to expand infant and toddler care in rural Maine.

“This is going to be the package of funds that’s going to truly stabilize the child care sector in Maine and lift up those centers” that are struggling, Williams said.

She’s also optimistic for legislative changes on the horizon.

One bill, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, would bolster Maine’s child care system with a $5 million annual investment in training, wage subsidies and other supports.

Another, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, would establish a “First 4 ME Early Care and Education Program” to provide high-quality, early childhood education services for at-risk kids under the age of 6 who have not entered kindergarten. The program would fund projects that integrate comprehensive resources and services with traditional child care center and family child care settings.

“There’s a lot of good that’s on its way right now,” Williams said. “I’m hopeful that will quickly translate to more access.”

McLachlan, co-owner of Chickadee, is glad to see the programs and incentives down the pike, but she hopes to see more comprehensive change in the future that will benefit all providers and families.

“We need a social safety net for every family and for every provider,” she said. “Anything less is child abandonment, in my opinion.”

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