Over the past year and a half, child care centers around the nation have suffered throughout the COVID-19 global pandemic. Child care providers are now speaking out on how it has negatively impacted their industry.

Since the pandemic began and schools moved to virtual learning, millions of parents have had to work from home. Fearing for the health and safety of their children, many parents have opted out of child care services which in turn has led to labor shortages.

New Horizon Academy CEO and Minnesota Child Care Association President Chad Dunkley said there are currently 72 New Horizon Academies throughout the state. He said the last year and a half has been a rollercoaster for all child care providers across the country. Minnesota was no exception.

“Back at the last end of March of last year, New Horizon Academy was serving over 10,000 Minnesota children, and in a matter of weeks we went to serving about 2,200. We were really struggling with what do we do now,” said Dunkley. “Pre-pandemic we had over 3,100 teachers here in Minnesota and at one point we had about 1,000. We’ve continued to hire and more families have returned. Today, we sit a little over 2,100 teachers here.”

Dunkley said he understands that child care is a critical piece of infrastructure for those families that don’t have the luxury of staying home and knows the importance of staying open for them.

“Minnesota was one of the first states in the country that did a significant public policy push to ask Minnesota legislators to come up with a grant program because we didn’t have enough children to pay the bills and we needed to serve our communities,” said Dunkley. “We were first in the country to get Peacetime Emergency Child Care Grants for child care providers and since then, the federal government has sent a couple of rounds of rescue money to help child care providers weather this pandemic.”

According to Child Care Aware of Minnesota, the Peacetime Emergency Child Care Grants were distributed in three grant rounds from April through June 2020. As part of their COVID-19 Response Supplemental Budget, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan proposed an initial $30 million in funding for emergency grants for licensed child care providers serving essential workers during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

In June, an additional $10 million was added to the program. The program has now ended. The Department of Human Services, Governor’s Children’s Cabinet and Child Care Aware of Minnesota worked together to distribute these funds, according to the nonprofit program.

Staffing shortagesThe lack of child care workers is being felt throughout the Twin Cities metro. Child care and day care facilities like the YMCA and New Creations Child Care and Learning Center in Prior Lake are feeling the effects of not having enough staff in their classrooms.

“The demand for families going back to work is happening faster than we’re able to recruit and hire teachers. The Minnesota Child Care Association Board said they’ve never seen staffing shortages like this,” said Dunkley. “We’ve been doing this 50 years and it’s never been this challenging and the number of providers that have been doing this the past 30 years feel the same way. The capacity is there as far as space goes, but we don’t have enough teachers.”

Senior Director of Communications and Marketing of YMCA of the North Joan Schimml said during the toughest months of 2020, enrollment dropped to 30% resulting in furloughing of staff.

“Before the pandemic we had a difficult time finding staff, and now like many organizations in every industry, it is even harder to find staff,” said Schimml. “The pandemic has been difficult for all. I am very proud of the YMCA and the YMCA staff that have showed up for work every day since the pandemic began to care for children in our community and provide them a safe, nurturing place so parents can continue work while not having to worry about their child.”

Megan Sohns, site director of New Creations Child Care and Learning Center in Prior Lake, channeled what Dunkley said about there being more open positions than there are qualified teachers to hire.

“We are looking to hire for a few positions coming into the fall and have been experiencing hardship finding individuals who are looking for a new job in child care,” said Sohns. “The hiring climate has been very challenging. We are finding that there are more open positions than there are candidates to fill them.”

Having less staff, many child care centers have also had to resort to turning families away.

“There’s still families staying home but we’re seeing waves of families wanting to come back and the real crisis facing our industry today is finding enough qualified teachers to open all our classrooms back up,” said Dunkley. “We have to tell families we’re getting a waiting list, and as soon as we find qualified teachers and staff, we’ll reopen some of our classrooms that have yet to be reopened.”

Child developmentChild care providers in the area agree that the pandemic has not only been stressful to adults, but especially children.

Public Relations Manager of KinderCare Education Colleen Moran, located in several locations including Chanhassen, Shakopee and Prior Lake, said KinderCare offers inclusion services to help children cope with their emotions during times of stress.

“One of the biggest challenges is simply that we’re still in the pandemic, and that’s quite stressful for adults and for children. When it comes to helping children cope and build resiliency in the face of trauma or stress, we know that the predictable routines and nurturing relationships are key,” said Moran. “We also worked with our medical advisors to create materials and resources to help families work through their emotions during these stressful times. For children and families who may need additional support, our Inclusion Services team is available to provide individualized consultation and community referrals as needed.”

Sohns said she believes that the pandemic has forever changed the way that children see education and said it has been tough on children and child caregivers alike.

“I believe that having infants, toddlers and preschoolers entering buildings run by masked caregivers has been really hard on their social-emotional development. I think that having teachers wearing masks was really hard especially on the really young toddlers and the infants, seeing our faces is so important,” said Sohns. “Seeing a caregiver smile can completely change the trajectory of a child’s day, and having teachers wearing masks in classrooms for a short period even was really hard for these kids.”

Schimml also said that young children have been mentally affected greatly but is proud to work with families providing a safe place for their children.

“Children at this age are learning social skills and when they are not interacting with others, a huge part of their development is affected. They have missed a lot through facial expressions with adults wearing masks,” said Schimml. “Children have also been affected by the trauma of their parents losing jobs, confusion over why we have to be so far apart, parental stress of the pandemic and much more. We work with our families to support their needs and provide children with a safe place to learn, grow and thrive during this difficult pandemic affecting our community.”

Public health guidelinesDunkley said child care providers across the state have partnered with leading health care experts and are closely monitoring the latest updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and the Minnesota Department of Health.

Dunkley also said he also serves on the state’s COVID-19 advisory council.

New Horizon Academy has made changes to better protect children and staff, including limiting classroom traffic to teachers and kids only.

“We are asking now that the adults be masked. We are noticing there are few cases of transmission. About 75% of our teachers are vaccinated and the 25% that are not vaccinated we require them to do weekly COVID tests,” said Dunkley. “That’s another precaution that we’re just trying to do our best to make sure that we have as little exposure as possible.”

Other child care centers are also closely monitoring the health and safety of children and staff.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve worked closely with local and national medical experts and our local health department to ensure we’re doing everything possible to keep our teachers, children and community safe,” said Moran. “We continue to evolve our enhanced health and safety practices as we learn more about this virus.”

Schimml added that because they are a licensed child care center, they already have many protocols in place including frequent handwashing, sanitation of toys and cleaning of surfaces.

“We work closely with state departments of health and other health experts to ensure we do everything we can during this pandemic and be flexible and adjust when needed,” said Schimml.

Dunkley concluded that the pandemic really brought to light how child care is an essential service and that the pandemic also reminded policy makers both at state and national level, that pre-pandemic, the early childhood care system was a broken economic model.

“Parents are stretched thin and could barely afford early childhood education,” he said. “As the state and the country recovers from the pandemic, I really hope we find ways to support families and children afford the quality of education their child deserves.”