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Navigating the Childcare Gap in Rhode Island

About half of American families live in child care deserts, places where they have little or no access to quality, licensed child care. What makes childcare so hard to find? A combination of factors, including difficulties both in finding suitable locations for centers and staffing those centers, make it hard for providers to stay afloat while charging rates that working families can afford. We spoke to two providers in Rhode Island about what the childcare gap looks like in their communities.


Mary Varr is the Executive Director of Woonsocket Head Start Child Development Association, Inc. Varr’s agency has Head Start, infant-toddler and preschool childcare, as well as state Pre-K classrooms operating at four different locations in Woonsocket, R.I. Varr is also on the Board of the National Head Start Association. She spoke to us recently about the challenge of finding and maintaining adequate facilities for early childhood programs.


Tell us about the challenges you face as a child care provider.

Facilities are a huge challenge. We’re in four buildings in Woonsocket; we own two, the city owns one, and the housing authority owns the other. Two years ago, we did a renovation on our child care building and it cost a fortune. Fortunately, we received a loan with LISC [Rhode Island Child Care and Early Learning Facilities Fund] along with some grant money for an architect.

For years, I have been looking for other space in the city to be able to expand. There are not enough infant toddler spots in the city [with wait lists typically running to 30 families at any given time], and there are no appropriate and/or affordable buildings that can be renovated to do that. In addition, there’s no money to do the renovation even if we did have the building. Childcare programs are typically nonprofit, so we don’t generate a lot of savings. Also, many of the buildings in the city were built many years ago, so even if you were to renovate, you have to deal with asbestos and lead paint abatement, which makes it more difficult and expensive.


How does using a building for child care differ from using it in other ways? Does it make it harder to find facilities that will work?

I think it does. You have to meet square footage amounts, have windows in specific spaces where children spend their time, make sure the layout of the room is developmentally appropriate, that the noise level will not go past a certain volume, that there are a certain amount of sinks and toilets in the room. Lighting is also a different consideration in a classroom [than other spaces]. You have to have space for administrative offices, parking, and a drop-off and pickup area that is accessible and useable for parents. You have to have outdoor space, and classrooms have to exit directly to the playground.

The best practices are to have bathrooms in the classrooms. Last month I started a meeting with the school department about sharing space. The discussion got hung up on toilets because for a preschool space in a [primary] school, they only need one bathroom in the classroom, which is what the space currently has, whereas childcare [facilities standards] require two for 20 kids. And preschool size toilets are smaller and cost more. It all comes back to the toilets!

I believe in the regulations. They’re there for the right reasons in what they require for the safety of the children.


Talk about how the quality of facilities matters.

One of my buildings, the one owned by the city, is an old Quonset hut built in 40s. It has a lot of issues and we’re not renovating it, just maintaining it, because the mayor has plans to tear it down for an athletic complex. It’s a challenging building and has a different feel to it than the building where my office is, which is a renovated mill building and is gorgeous. The size of rooms may meet licensing regulations, but it’s not above and beyond. Older buildings may have other strange quirks as far as how you get between rooms and parking is an issue. I do see that affecting the workforce. Working in a Head Start program is not easy. We work with a lot of vulnerable families and we collect a lot of information on our children and families for reporting and quality improvement purposes, and that could be a factor, too.

When we did the renovation of our child care building I pulled the staff in to help pick colors and design their rooms. Now it’s a much nicer place to work, not only because it’s been renovated but also because they were a part of the process.


How has your organization approached the child care crisis?

A few years ago when I met with the mayor about the Quonset huts, I asked her to give us at least a year’s notice for the tear down of the city-owned building so we could come up with alternative plans, otherwise 126 Head Start children would be displaced. I’m constantly looking around the city to see what we could do and if we would have capacity to borrow or rent or buy. There’s not really anything suitable. We have our buildings around the city so we can serve different populations because a lot of people don’t have transportation. In the areas where I need it, there’s not a lot [to choose from]. We’re talking a few million bucks I don’t have.


Are there resources for facilities other than LISC’s child care facilities funding?

No, you’d have to search around for potential grants. There’s nobody that says, “Yes, I’m going to help out the early childhood world.”  However, there are congress people working on bills to address the childcare crisis. The Working Families for Child Care Act of 2019 includes some subsidies and facilities in there, but it’s probably not going to go anywhere for awhile. But it’s becoming more recognized as an issue. 


Shannon Carroll is President and CEO of the Genesis Center in Providence, Rhode Island. The Genesis Center has offered adult education and early learning since 1982, serving children and their parents in the same location. Genesis offers workforce and career training and is considering adding a training pathway for early childhood teacher training. For Carroll, the child care crisis is primarily a workforce issue.


How do you see child care as an economic issue?

If people don’t have consistent, reliable child care, they can’t get a job and keep their job. To me, early learning is without question a work support.

The primary issue is low wages in the field. Our early learning center serves infants to pre-K and it’s a huge struggle because we can’t staff it. We have four classrooms, but only three are open right now because we can’t find enough qualified teachers to staff [the fourth]. The problem is the connection between the credentials required in the field and [therefore] what we need for our staff versus the funds we have to pay them. It’s phenomenally low-paid as an industry.

If I have my master’s degree in early childhood education, the going salary rate is in the mid-forties, and most early learning teachers receive much lower pay than that. There are so many other careers that will pay more. Teachers are the working poor. We have a mission for economic self-sufficiency at the Genesis Center and we can’t even pay our child care workers the rate we expect our [workforce training] graduates to get. Our adult education teachers make more than double, at $24 per hour. Most of our child care workers are just above minimum wage, which is currently $10.50 per hour in Rhode Island. It’s not fair to our employees. There’s inequity within our own walls and it’s not right.


What are you seeing where you are located? How big is the gap? 

There’s a gap and I anticipate it’s going to get far worse because we don’t have any workers coming in. There’s no pipeline right now. We have a serious issue in finding the staff we need, but if we don’t change something, in five years it will be a huge problem. A lot of centers are closing, we’ve contemplated closing. It’s a struggle, it really is.


How do facilities issues contribute?

We have had many facilities repairs that need to be done. Between facilities and wages, we are constantly fighting this battle that the resources just aren’t there. LISC has provided quite a bit of funding to us to improve our facilities, including helping with a $100,000 project to install a ramp to comply with new regulations that call for stairless egress. If we hadn’t had funders to provide that, we would have had to close.

We have experienced some issues with our building. We perform constant, daily checks to make sure no paint is peeling and there are no chemicals. We do lead checks and a lot of air quality checks. It’s a constant battle that we need to stay on top of all the time. There are different standards for using a space for early childhood.

Things change, too. In about 2009, we spent a lot of money on outdoor play equipment, but now it’s not age-appropriate according to the new standards, so we had to have it removed. These standards change so frequently in what’s age-appropriate, so we have to put more money into it. It never ends. Even the mulch levels – you need a certain depth of mulch for different fall areas. We have to replace it constantly. You just need to be vigilant and err on the side of caution in replacing things.


How has your organization approached the crisis?

We’re trying to attack it in two different ways. One is to work with partners to develop some career pathways, a training in early childhood education that will take people from the community and train them to work in the centers. Early childhood education can be a viable career path for some people who have cared for kids their entire adult lives, but there are so many barriers to entry; candidates need a high school diploma or equivalency and English language proficiency. We’re starting an apprentice program that will provide hands-on learning. We’re also working with a partner to provide contextualized training that will build language proficiency and create pathways.

Second, we’re trying to find some mechanism to increase wages. That is the really tough nut to crack. We have some unrestricted funding that we allocate to early childhood. If I were to take away that unrestricted funding, we would be working at a $75,000 deficit for a $430,000 program. That’s not small. We cannot sustain it with just child care funds. [Even with the additional funding], it’s still not enough to staff up completely and to get wages where we want them to be. The money’s just not there. I am totally a proponent of increasing the minimum wage, but how do I pay for that?

Parents are spending so much on early learning. They don’t understand why we can’t pay people more and keep staff. The numbers don’t work. I honestly think employers need to step up. I don’t think wages are going to move at all if they don’t see child care as a benefit if they want to keep and retain good employees. We offer [reduced cost child care] as a benefit to our own employees. I wish employers could understand the value of this. We can’t do it alone as government and nonprofits and philanthropy.

I feel like I have been fighting the system and trying to get people in government to understand we need more resources and need more training. If people have to pay for their education to work in this field, there’s no return on investment. You might love kids, but you want to be able to go on vacation, buy a decent car, offer certain opportunities to your kids or even do the basic stuff of feeding them every day. It’s a vicious cycle. I don’t think it’s fair that the people we entrust to care for our children have to suffer themselves just because they chose this line of work.


There is hope for a resolution in the strength of recent advocacy for policies that address the issues behind the child care gap. For the first time, we are seeing a significant emphasis & consensus in Washington on the value of early childhood development and a real momentum around facilities and workforce issues. Read more about the Child Care for Working Families Act, recently re-introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Patty Murray (D-WA). You can access more information, including state-by-state fact sheets, from Child Care Aware of America.