For six years, Ernestina Fuentes had been building out her early childhood program, hiring trained staff, developing a model tailored to children with trauma and eventually earning a four-star quality rating from the state.
Fuentes, the founder and director of Herencia Guadalupana Lab Schools in Tucson, Ariz., had mostly avoided the high turnover rates that so often plague the early childhood sector. She found a steady staff of qualified teachers, many of whom had been with her program for years.
That consistency is important to any program for young children, but especially for hers, which primarily serves children who live in poverty and are, as Fuentes puts it, “wounded”—often moving through the foster care system, carrying experiences of neglect and abuse.
Before the pandemic, Guadalupana had 14 employees, all of whom, Fuentes says, were dedicated to the program’s mission to transform the lives of children and send them into kindergarten “verbal, confident and brilliant.” But by the end of March 2020, she’d lost nine staff members, all for reasons relating to threats or challenges created by COVID-19.
“It’s not just the loss of staff, but the loss of quality. ... That’s gutted.”
“It left a big hole in the quality of our program, the strength of our program,” Fuentes said by phone in mid-January, during her program’s third 14-day closure due to multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases. “It’s not just the loss of staff, but the loss of quality. It’s a hard job to build quality. We pride ourselves on that. That’s gutted.”
Staff departures were a major problem in child care long before the pandemic. While firm numbers are hard to find, studies estimate annual turnover rates between 26 and 40 percent for early childhood educators in licensed facilities. The risks and burdens of COVID-19 have made it all the more difficult to both retain high-quality early childhood professionals and replace those who leave.
In December 2020, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which represents and advocates for early childhood professionals, published the results of a November survey of more than 6,000 home- and center-based child care workers. Among its findings: 69 percent of respondents said “recruiting and retaining qualified staff is more difficult now than it was before the pandemic,” citing reasons ranging from fear, anxiety, the need to protect themselves and their families, low compensation and lack of respect.
A Compounded Problem
Absent the threat of a global health emergency, child care providers still had a hard time bringing on—and keeping—trained teachers. The median pay rate for preschool teachers is $14.67 per hour, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For child care workers, who often serve in supporting roles such as assistant teachers, floaters or aides, it’s even lower, at $11.65 per hour. Employer-provided benefits such as health insurance, vacation time and sick leave are scarce, due to the thin margins many programs operate on.
In many cases, early childhood professionals—the vast majority of whom are women, and disproportionately women of color—could make more money working elsewhere, with fewer stressors and less effort, as half a dozen providers explained in interviews.
“We are kept at a high standard—all this pressure to get these kids ready, keep them healthy and safe ... and then it’s like, ‘Here’s your minimum wage.’”
There’s also a respect problem in the field.
“We treat these people like they are meaningless, like they’re babysitters, like the work they are doing is not important,” said Heather Siskind, CEO of Jack and Jill Children’s Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “We are kept at a high standard—all this pressure to get these kids ready, keep them healthy and safe, be mandatory reporters. There are all these things put on us, and then it’s like, ‘Here’s your minimum wage.’”
Combined, it’s a tough sell across the spectrum, from a college graduate to an hourly worker— the latter of whom, Siskind acknowledged, might actually make more money behind the counter at Burger King.
“It has always been a challenge to find new staff,” she said. “You can imagine that, coupled with the coronavirus, it’s even more challenging now.”
For Fuentes, the departures happened early and in quick succession. Three of her former employees are the parents of infants and toddlers and “were really frightened” by the early reports of the virus outbreak in the U.S. Given how little was known at the time about how the virus was spread and how it might affect small children, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty.
“They said, ‘We can’t stay. We need to take our babies and go home,’” Fuentes recalled. “We understood that. But they were some of our most awesome teachers.”
The other six employees who left were older—in their 50s and 60s—and at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. Fuentes described them as “hard core, old-school people, totally dedicated to children.” She was sorry to see them go, but again understood the calculation they had to make.
Fuentes herself is 73 years old. She said she thinks “all the time” about the risks she’s taking by continuing to go to work, “but when I think about the consequences, there’s no way I could [stop]. This is a vision we have, to change the lives of children. Until I’m not able, I’m going to continue doing so. … To close this program completely, I would never do that.” (Fuentes said she did get very ill in early March, and later learned through an antibody test that she’d had COVID-19.)
Fuentes’ staff left for the same reasons many others described: heightened health risks, fear of possible long-term effects on children, their own family’s child care demands and a general sense of self-preservation.
Lucinda Ross, the executive director of St. Michael’s School and Nursery in Wilmington, Del., had some staff tell her, “I can’t do it. I’m too nervous. I’m anxious,” she recalled. A handful had to leave the center when K-12 schools reopened in the fall, to stay home and support their remote learners.
One staff member’s reason for leaving, Ross said, is burned into her brain: “She was a great infant teacher, and what she said to me—she was all set to come back to work—was ‘I have just been to my fifth funeral.’ She lost five relatives between March and June, and said she just couldn’t do it.”
Ross doesn’t blame her staff for leaving, however hard it is to see them go. The teachers are the ones up close with the children every day, enduring their coughs and sneezes—even if it’s from behind masks. One teacher told Ross that they needed to have more masks on hand for the little ones, because “for some of these kids, by 10:30 a.m., you could wring the saliva out of it.”
“They are putting themselves in harm’s way every single day,” Ross explained.
Jaime Kotter, director of Trinity Presbyterian Church Preschool in Clearwater, Fla., has lost three employees since last summer, and she’s been looking since August for their replacements, with little success. “Trying to find teachers even before the pandemic was horrible,” Kotter said. “It’s been a little bit more challenging since COVID-19.”
In the last six months, Kotter has not seen a single applicant with a Child Development Associate—the most widely recognized credential for those pursuing a career in early childhood education. She gets a lot of applicants from the fast food, grocery and factory industries, many of whom, if she grants them an interview, will demand $13 or $14 an hour. That’s a non-starter, she said; her program usually pays new hires who lack experience in early childhood $10.50 to $11 an hour.
“When I meet with potential employees, I tell them, ‘This is something you have to love. There are days you want to pull the hair out of your head,’” Kotter explained. “I’m not looking for someone for a few weeks. I’m looking for someone who is invested, long-term.”
Siskind, who works at the center in Fort Lauderdale, sees plenty of applicants from the restaurant and retail industries too.
“You might get the [occasional] fast food worker, but if you pry a little bit, you might hear them say, ‘I love kids.’ It’s not, ‘I can’t wait to teach this child and watch them grow developmentally.’ So we ask, ‘Can this work? Can we teach them to want to teach kids?’”
Recently, Siskind was trying to hire someone who worked as a manager at Walmart and has a degree in early childhood education. But the Jack and Jill Children’s Center couldn’t afford to pay her what she was making at Walmart, and she needed the money. The woman walked away from the offer.
“What we’re experiencing now is nothing we’ve ever experienced before, in regard to staffing,” Siskind said, emphasizing how critical it is to keep the staff who have not already left, lest providers “find ourselves in a worse crisis.”
For Fuentes in Tucson, even since her original nine staff left, she’s experienced a revolving door of departures and new hires.
“Hiring is one of the hardest things during this pandemic. They just don’t stay,” she explained. “They have to decide if they want to take the risk—because it’s high risk. Then, do they want to do the training? It's a lot of training.”
Fuentes added: “Our turnover is horrific. In a month, I’m guessing we have three to four people leave.”
“It’s deflating to have them walk out, [but] if they couldn’t last a day, they don't belong here.”
The ones who come and go, she said, don’t stay long—maybe a few days to a week. She had someone in early January show up for one day before quitting. Siskind recently hired a woman who went on her lunch break on the first day and never came back.
“It’s deflating to have them walk out,” Fuentes said. “I have a bit of anger, but also a bit of, ‘Thank god,’ because if they couldn’t last a day, they don't belong here.”
That rate of turnover is more than frustrating. It’s costly. Many providers have to conduct background checks, process fingerprints and spend their own time interviewing and onboarding new hires. Fuentes estimated each hire costs $200 to process (tuberculosis tests, COVID-19 tests, fingerprinting, transcripts and more), and that’s not to mention the cost of her time. It is no small matter to invest that kind of money only to lose a person a week later, especially with the tight budgets most child care programs have to stick to.
“We’ve not had people who come and go like that before,” Fuentes noted. She prefers using word-of-mouth or even signs posted in the neighborhood over hiring sites like Indeed. Kotter, in Clearwater, Fla., said she has had greater success posting about teacher openings on her Facebook page than she has through any other means.
“You have to believe in the philosophy. You have to be committed, dedicated,” Fuentes said. “That takes development and training and modeling and exposure.”
The turnover has been a huge drain. The training required to bring on a new person is intensive. The inconsistency of it all, especially, has taken its toll. Fuentes is exhausted.
“It becomes really tense—the education and health piece. It’s a lot of stress on people,” she acknowledged. “The people who stay are incredible. We’re building back, but slowly.”