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Major staffing shortages beset Virginia’s child care providers

The Children's Center, a nonprofit child care provider in the Hampton Roads region, is among...
The Children's Center, a nonprofit child care provider in the Hampton Roads region, is among thousands of Virginia facilities running at a deficit amid the COVID-19 pandemic.(Virginia Mercury)
Published: Jun. 14, 2021 at 7:03 AM EDT
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After more than a year of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Rosalind Cutchins is braced for a busy June as she prepares to reopen two Head Start programs at her child care centers across the Hampton Roads region. But she’s been confronted by a staffing shortfall — 22 unfilled positions across eight different locations.

It’s a challenge providers are facing across the commonwealth as businesses reopen and Virginia moves into the recovery phase of its post-pandemic economy. In many ways, it’s already ahead, with a revenue surplus and an unemployment rate, at 4.7 percent, which is more than a full percentage point lower than many of its closest neighbors.

But when it comes to its labor force, Virginia is still in a period of decline. From February 2020 to April 2021, participation dropped by nearly 4 percent. With only 62.7 percent of Virginians currently employed or actively seeking work, participation is lower than it was in July 2020, when emergency restrictions were still in place across the state.

“I think that comparing the April 2016 labor force to the April 2021 labor force is useful because it indicates zero growth,” wrote Timothy Aylor, a senior economist for the Virginia Employment Commission, in an email last week. “Or, put another way, that pandemic-era trends have erased all labor force gains made since 2016.”

Experts worry that staffing shortages among child care providers could make the situation worse. The industry isn’t the only one reporting a dearth of interested workers, but Cutchins said it could affect the availability of services.

Statewide, nearly 10 percent of Virginia’s 6,047 licensed child care facilities were still closed as of May 28, according to data from the Virginia Department of Social Services. But even when centers reopen, they may be doing so with less capacity. The industry is still subject to the same masking, sanitation and distancing guidelines put in place last year. And because children younger than 12 still aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines, Cutchins said facilities are still required to cohort children and employees in smaller groups.

“The bottom line is that it makes staffing and staffing patterns more difficult,” she said. Before the pandemic, for example, it was possible for one employee to watch two children from different classes if they arrived before the school day started. But under the current guidelines, those children would need to stay separate to lower the potential risk of exposure.

As a result, most providers need more staff than usual to reopen fully. Currently, many of those positions are going unfilled. Rich Schultz, president of Smart Beginnings of Greater Richmond, a nonprofit coalition focused on early childhood education, said his coalition began polling local providers and found that — of the 26 child care programs they’ve reached so far — 85 percent reported staffing shortages. In total, there were 114 open teaching positions across all of the facilities.

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The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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