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PA child care providers sound alarm, say more support is needed as federal COVID funding ends

Heather Smoyer is the director of the KinderCare Learning Center in State College. Federal funding from the COVID pandemic helped the center and many others reopen, but advocates say the state and federal governments need to do more to support child care in the long run.
Anne Danahy
Heather Smoyer is the director of the KinderCare Learning Center in State College.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of millions in federal dollars was pushed out to child care centers in Pennsylvania, but that funding wasn't permanent and has stopped. At a time when workers can make more in other jobs, providers and advocates say the child care shortage that existed before the pandemic will get worse if the government doesn’t step in.

“Are you guys playing?" Heather Smoyer, director of the State College KinderCare Learning Center, is talking to some of the children playing outside on a late summer day at the child care center in the State College area in Centre County.

Inside, some toddlers are pretending to be airplanes.

Smoyer said the center is fully staffed now, but the story was different over the summer. Families would call asking her when she might have an opening for their children.

"So now finally, I'm giving them the calls. And you know, one mom said, 'Oh my gosh, I feel like I've won the lottery. I can't believe you called me. When can I start?' Yes, you can start on Monday. So that's been the joyful part of my job — finally being able to call families, that they have a space now," Smoyer said.

The center is part of a national company. Smoyer was able to work with a recruiter this summer to get back to a full staff. But before that she and the assistant director were covering classrooms.

And they’re not alone. Staffing shortages are playing out across the state and country.

Pennsylvania and other states got federal funding during the COVID pandemic that helped child care centers pay their employees and open their doors. In Pennsylvania’s case, that meant about $729 million in American Rescue Plan Act stabilization money. Of that, the state sent out 90% or $656 million in grants. Additional ARPA funding that supported child care is ending in fall 2024.

But that money was a stop-gap measure for an industry that some say is broken. They point to the high costs of running child care coupled with competing for employees who can make more in other jobs.

And now, the country is facing what some are calling a child care cliff.

“Our system is in crisis right now," said Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, a statewide membership organization of early childhood professionals.

DeBell said a February survey found more than 38,000 children on waiting lists, 1,600 closed classrooms and 4,000 open positions.

“If they lose a teacher in a particular classroom and can't meet the ratio that's required to keep kids safe, they have to temporarily shut down the classroom until they find staff to replace that person," she said.

Just ask Erin Luley Hartzler, the mother of a 16-month-old son and a daughter close to 3 years old, both in the same day care. The family got a notice the center was closing because of staffing challenges, and that's when the scramble began. That day care did have openings at another location, but those were filling up.

“By Tuesday, I had set up a visit with another location. It didn't feel like it was a great fit for our family. We got waitlisted at another place, and found out that a couple places weren't accepting students at the time. So I was feeling a little bit desperate," Luley Hartzler said.

Then she found a center with two openings — and moved quickly.

Luley Hartzler says it’s a wonderful school and she appreciates the teachers and staff working with her family, but it’s been an adjustment.

“Honestly, when they're crying at drop off, it makes you feel horrible," she said.

DeBell said problems with child care shortages were around before the pandemic, but that exacerbated them.

"We need to make long term sustainable investments at the state and federal level in childcare," she said.

Those could range from helping families pay for child care to supplementing teacher pay. And, DeBell and others point out, high-quality, affordable child care also helps parents stay in the workforce.

When the COVID pandemic hit, the federal government did push a lot of money into child care. In Pennsylvania, that money helped day care providers keep and recruit staff.

But, DeBell said, there’s nothing permanent to address the issue. In Pennsylvania, the average pay for a child care teacher is about $12.50 an hour

“So we understand why people are leaving the sector, they love these jobs, they want to work with kids, but at the end of the day, they have to be able to provide for their own families," DeBell said.

Shante' Brown, deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning in Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, said in Pennsylvania stabilization grants went to about 5,700 child care centers and other providers in the state. Additional funding went to 1,100 eligible providers in homes.

That money, Brown noted, was not meant to be long term. This year’s state budget does increase state funding for child care access. And, Brown said, Governor Josh Shapiro’s administration knows that early learning and childcare is an “invaluable resource.”

“It allows parents to work, knowing that their children are safe. And so the administration is continuing to work to ensure that child care programs, including Child Care Works, which is what our providers utilize for subsidies, or low-income families have the resources they need to continue supporting families across the commonwealth," she said.

She said they will also be doing a statewide needs assessment to look at where there are shortages and how that can be addressed.

"We are certainly looking at multiple ways to be able to support not just our families, but our providers as well," Brown said.

Smoyer, who runs the KinderCare, said early childhood education needs more help from state and federal governments, "because the parents just can't afford to pay more than they already are."

Those investments, Smoyer and others said, will benefit everyone in the long run.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.