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Child care faces staff shortage, higher costs

Impact of COVID pandemic lingers even as many restrictions ease.

Children having lunch at a day care center. (Shutterstock)

If Mary Poppins were to come floating through Evanston looking for work, she’d likely find a nanny position almost immediately, and would be able to name her salary.

Local experts say the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting child care, from nannies, to au pairs, and to day care and preschool centers.

Bottom line: Fewer workers means you’ll have to look harder to find quality child care, and you’ll have to pay more to get it.

“The market is in disarray,” says Kathy Murphy, owner of North Shore Nannies.

The pandemic, she says, created a lot of new demands on the child care field. Parents who might have ordinarily sent their children to day care looked for in-home care instead, because day care facilities had to close early on while the virus was spreading.

While those centers have reopened, some families are still reluctant to send their children because kids under age 12 are not eligible for COVID vaccinations. At the same time, as office workers start returning to their in-person jobs, they still need someone to look after the kids.

So for nannies, Murphy says, “salaries have been zooming up. If you want somebody good, you have to pay. There’s no bargaining.”

Those salaries, she says, have gone from about $18-$22 per hour pre-pandemic, to $25-$30 per hour now.

Early childhood centers (day care and preschool) are also seeing a staffing crunch.

Chrissie Cornell is the director of the School for Little Children and is also co-chair of the Evanston Early Childhood Council, an advocacy group which represents 25 child care organizations and facilities.

“Teachers are more expensive and harder to get,” she says. Other costs have also gone up, for required items such as masks, while revenues have gone down.

Nearly all day care centers and preschools in Illinois closed for several months last year at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, depriving those centers of needed tuition dollars.

Once the facilities did reopen, enrollment was limited due to spacing restrictions. Cornell says the School for Little Children went from 150 youngsters to 70.

With restrictions now being eased, more children will be able to attend. “It’s trending in the right direction,” Cornell says. But until COVID vaccinations are approved for young children, there will still be limits.

“It’s pretty slow going,” Cornell adds. “Many programs across the state have lower enrollment than normal, and we’re all struggling to find teachers” in a traditionally low paying field.

Lyndsay Percival is the director of Learning Bridge early childhood center in Evanston. She has also seen a “huge shortage of qualified early childhood educators.”

The mission of Learning Bridge, Percival says, is to provide “affordable child care.” Tuition is about $300 per week, with some families paying the full cost, while others receive state assistance.

Learning Bridge did receive some Paycheck Protection Program loans and grants to help during the peak of the pandemic.

“But our concern,” Percival says, is what happens next year “if the support money goes away but we still have increased costs.” For example, Learning Bridge spent $30,000 on expenses which did not exist before COVID, for items like PPE, disinfectant and a new washer and dryer.

One type of child care where the staff shortage is finally starting to ease is with au pairs, college students from overseas who live in your home and take care of the kids in return for room and board, a stipend, and also a fee for the placement agency.

One of those agencies serving Evanston is Au Pair Care. Director Renee Kulman says, “It was very difficult last year when COVID hit” because of international travel restrictions. Those restrictions, she says, are easing up now, and the hope is “it will open up more as time moves on.”

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

Clearly, unsubsidized child care is not something everyone can afford. There are low-or-no cost options for those who meet financial guidelines, but families with the means to pay will now have to pay even more.

Kulman says employing an au pair is about $18,000 a year, not inexpensive, but, she says, it can be “a lot more affordable than having a nanny or full time day care.” Kulman also says, the “cultural component” of having an overseas student care for your children can be a plus.

Looking long-term, it may take awhile for the child care field to return to any semblance of pre-pandemic normal.

“Some people’s work-life balance has changed,” says Cornell. They may not want out-of-home care for their children, or might not be able to afford it.

“I expect it will take two to three years to climb out from under COVID,” she says.

Cornell also says the pandemic “highlighted inequalities in the educational system. We need to do more,” she adds, to lobby for change, such as higher pay for preschool staffers, alternative certification routes to make it less expensive to obtain daycare employment credentials, and more assistance so families can afford child care in the first place.

If there is a bright side to all of this, Cornell says, is that she “feels re-energized and re-committed” to pushing harder to make early childhood education a viable career path for teachers, and, most importantly, to continue making daycare and preschool a place where children thrive.

keywords » COVID-19

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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