Bright Start Childcare, a private non-profit organization in Topsham re-opened in September after being closed for a year due to COVID-19 related concerns. Eileen Twiddy.

COVID-19 has forced many Maine childcare providers to shut their doors, leaving working families out on a limb.

Across the state, 187 licensed childcare centers shut down between April 2020 and September 2021, taking with them many childcare slots for kids who need care while their parents are working.

“It is extremely difficult to find places open for families who have early morning or evening work. Prices are constantly rising, and availability for weekends and holidays have decreased over the years,” said Monica Carter-Jipson, a parent and Lisbon resident who works full-time.

One of the major reasons for the closure of these centers is a widespread worker shortage, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Alyse Hinkley, one of the owners of A Place to Grow, a childcare center with locations in Topsham and North Yarmouth said they had to keep the North Yarmouth center closed one day a week for the last few weeks due to the staff shortage.

Both centers are licensed for 30 kids.

“Truly, the biggest challenge is finding qualified staffing,” said Hinkley. “We have the fear every week about if we will have enough staff to open our center or not. We are concerned about staff burnout. We have a handful of parents who volunteer to keep their child home on other days when we don’t have enough staff so we can remain open for those who do need to work and can’t stay home.”

Hinkley added that they had spent over $2,000 advertising for job openings. However, most of the applications they received were from candidates who did not have sufficient qualifications.

“Those who attended the interview would tell us they attended interviews at other places where they were offering jobs on the spot,” said Hinkley. “Small centers cannot compete with a pay wage that larger centers can offer.”

Childcare workers in the U.S. are paid an average of $10.72 an hour, which is less than 98% of what other U.S. workers earn hourly, according to the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Six staff members are currently working at each center with barely any room for sick leaves or medical appointments.

Hinkley said it was challenging to navigate the pandemic initially, considering there was very little guidance for childcare.

“We were four months into the pandemic, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hit us with pages of guidelines and rules. The frequent closure and kids being kept at home has taken a huge financial hit to our business,” added Hinkley.

Their Topsham center was closed for about five weeks when the pandemic had first hit, and it took almost four months for them to get most of their kids back at the center, said Hinkley.

There are 1,616 licensed childcare providers in the state as of Sept 2021. Of which, there are 800 childcare facilities — such as daycares — 37 nursery schools, and 779 family childcare providers, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

While there were 50 licensed childcare providers in Brunswick and Topsham in April 2020, that number reduced to 46 by September 2021.

Maine DHHS has also received nearly 250 new applicants for childcare licenses since April 2020, according to Jackie Farwell, the agency’s communications director.

Bright Start Childcare, a private nonprofit organization in Topsham that has provided services to children and families in the Topsham-Brunswick area for over a decade, re-opened last month after it was closed in late March 2020 due to pandemic-related concerns.

Eileen Twiddy, the organization’s director, said that though the center is licensed for 40 children, they only have five.

“It’s been slow getting started again, after having been closed,” said Twiddy. “We are starting everything from scratch. We are trying to recruit children again as they have moved on into the school age. It’s hard when you do not have any base to draw from.”

While the organization is actively looking to recruit children, Twiddy said there are various reasons why families are reluctant to send their kids to daycare centers.

“I think some people are still working from home, so they are having their children stay home with them. I also think some people are worried about putting their children in a group situation. People are struggling with ways to make daycare work for their family,” said Twiddy.

While there were six staff members before the pandemic at the center, there are four now, but Twiddy said they don’t need to have any more staff right now, considering there are a smaller number of children.

Farwell said that the department had supported childcare providers in maintaining the majority of Maine’s childcare capacity despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The department is in the process of awarding $73 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Maine childcare providers to help them increase the pay for staff and cover costs related to COVID-19,” said Farwell. “As of September 2021, childcare centers in Maine were operating at 99 percent capacity as compared to April 2020.”

Childcare providers who receive grants must use a portion of the funds to pay bonuses of $200 per month to staff who directly care for children. Facilities can also use these funds to pay for expenses including rent and utilities, reducing fees for families, loss of revenue, personal protective equipment, and testing, and mental health services for children and employees.


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