Eden Lovelady’s 6-month-old baby coos as she feeds him a bottle with one hand and pecks at her keyboard with the other.
She sits at her desk in the corner of her apartment’s living room, calling customer after customer from a spreadsheet as she tries to keep her baby quiet.
Lovelady is a single-mom to two young boys. Liam Lovelady, who is almost 2, attends Kaleidoscope Child Development Center, but 6-month-old Lucas Mbumwae is on the waitlist because the center does not have enough teachers to keep up with demand.
The pandemic caused child care deserts to expand, making it more difficult for parents to access care. Now staffing shortages in North Texas make access even worse as families linger on waitlists while providers scramble for more teachers.
“We would be back to being above where we were pre-covid if we had enough staff,” Diana Mizell, Kaleidoscope’s director, said of enrollment potential. “I just turn people away everyday.”
In Texas, 21% of child care providers closed from March 2020 through September 2021, creating 242 child care deserts, according to a new analysis of state data released in June by the nonprofit Children at Risk. Of programs that closed during that time, 41% served infants and toddlers.
Now, 635 zip codes in Texas are considered child care deserts, areas where the number of children under age 6 with working parents is three times greater than the licensed capacity of child care providers, according to Children at Risk.
Lovelady, for example, lives in the North Dallas 75287 zip code area that has only 28 child care seats per 100 children of working parents.
Kim Kofron, director of early childhood education for Children at Risk, said the staffing shortage is an issue their organization is seeing across the board.
“Families want to go back to work and need child care, but it’s bad because they (child care centers) can’t find the workforce to open those classrooms,” Kofron said.
Parents without child care struggle, the economy does too
With Lucas at home, Lovelady must juggle his needs with her customer service job that requires her to be on the phone for about six hours a day making outbound calls to dealerships, departments of motor vehicles and customers.
Lucas is spoiled and wants to be held all the time, she said. But she tries to keep him on a routine where he takes long naps so she can squeeze in more work. When she’s in a meeting she puts him in his bed, with toys or turns toddler videos on to keep him distracted.
“But it’s really tough especially when they’re sick, or just not feeling well or just tired,” she added.
Lovelady said her supervisors don’t “really approve” of her working and watching her baby at the same time. She worries about being on a “thin rope” with her job.
“If I make a call, I have to make sure there’s no noise,” she said. “I mean it’s strict, which is tough because if I lose my job, it’s not good.”
But while Lovelady waits for a spot at the child care center, she’s also waiting to hear back from Workforce Solutions North Central Texas, where she applied for financial assistance to help with Lucas’ care. That could mean a month of waiting to learn her status.
Without it, she can’t afford child care. So if a spot opens at Kaleidoscope before Lovelady receives the assistance, she will have to turn it down.
Women have experienced the majority of pandemic related job losses, according to a 2021 report from the National Women’s Law Center.
By May 2022 the economy was down nearly 1.2 million net jobs since February 2020, and women were down over 829,000 net jobs — making up nearly 70% of the overall loss — in that time, according to another report from the law center.
Studies show that investing in child care can make it easier for women to participate in the workforce.
Anne Hedgepeth, deputy chief of policy for Child Care Aware of America said bolstering child care is not only about women’s economic recovery but also about the country’s. Businesses nationwide are losing billions each year because workers don’t have enough access to high-quality, affordable child care.
At Good Street Learning Center —which has been serving second, third and fourth generation family members since 1952 — director Gwendolyn Sneed is stretched thin.
With only four teachers and 35 students, Sneed has “no backup.”
“When someone is out, we all feel it,” she said. Before the pandemic, the South Dallas center had 62 students and seven teachers. Now Sneed has to put students on a waitlist.
Before the pandemic, Sneed sometimes had the “luxury” of going through a few teacher applicants. Now she said she is lucky if anyone applies.
At Kaleidoscope, four of the 11 classrooms are full of supplies, decorations, toys and furniture. A sign on one of the doors now reads “Storage room.”
Mizell, the director at Kaleidoscope, plans to open one more classroom in mid-July, but the others will stay closed until the center has enough qualified staffers. Most of the teachers at Kaleidoscope have a child development associate credential or a college education.
But Mizell said that’s hard to find.
Many teachers aren’t returning to early education and retention rates are low because on top of low wages and long hours, working in child care requires a certain knowledge, training and personality, Kofron said.
The median annual wage for a child care worker in Texas was $21,780 a year, about $10.15 an hour in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley.
One in three child care workers experience food insecurity and many are on public assistance programs like Medicaid or SNAP, according to the center.
Brian Hunda worked at Kaleidoscope for nine years. In search of higher pay and a new career opportunity, he left in 2021 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies.
While Hunda was passionate about working child care, he had a side-hustle reselling sneakers to make extra money. He noted that other preschool teachers also talked about how they struggled financially.
“It is a stressful job. The job is not for everybody,” Hunda said, stressing that he loved working with the youngsters.
Many child care centers lost staffers who feared getting sick at work during the height of COVID-19. Others lost employees when hours were scaled back because of enrollment drops. And many employees went to other jobs paying more competitive wages.
Run by Mizell and her brother, Mike Mizell, Kaleidoscope never closed its doors during the pandemic, but the center became unrecognizable.
As enrollment dropped, staffing levels also went from 21 to 10. Of the 11 people who Kaleidoscope furloughed, only a couple came back once their unemployment checks ran out, Mizell said.
Now, the center has 15 teachers, but just six work full-time.
Addressing the staffing issue
Many child care centers have used federal pandemic aid to raise child care teacher wages and add benefits.
Mizell, for example, was able to add health insurance for staff and monthly retention bonuses. Sneed could offer teachers a competitive salary, raising their hourly rate by about $2.50.
While the funds are only a temporary fix, they’ve been a lifeline, Hedgepeth said.
But the nation’s child care centers are facing a fiscal cliff of $48 billion when the federal aid stops, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center early childhood team.
Mizell is preparing. The Texas Workforce Commission has temporarily increased the rates it pays centers that accept students on subsidized child care by 20%. Centers will continue to receive that increased rate through the end of November.
At Kaleidoscope, 92% of the students are on subsidized care. Mizell is saving that additional funding so she can continue covering staffers’ health insurance when the federal money runs out.
But there is only so much she and other child care centers can do.
U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced a proposal that would provide $72 billion in new funding over the next six years.
That money would allow states to increase the amount of children on subsidized care and raise child care subsidy payment rates to providers, supporting higher wages for staff.
Some state and local governments have already started to put more funding into child care access.
In May, Tarrant County commissioners approved using $45 million in federal funds to support child care and make long-term investments in early childhood education across the community.
In June, the Texas Workforce Commission announced it is awarding grants to develop child care apprenticeship programs to address the lack of employees. The commission also approved $75 million to help create and expand child care businesses in Texas by reducing the costs of opening or expanding a child care program.
“It’s going to take the combination of local dollars, state dollars and federal dollars to really make this happen,” Kofron said. “We, as a society, need to change the narrative that what happens from birth to five is not only on schools’ backs and parents’ but it’s in all of our best interests to really support families during this time frame.”
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.