The state of child care in New Hampshire has always been a tenuous one. In many areas there just aren’t enough open spots for families that are looking for care.
A 2018 Center for American Progress analysis found that more than half of Americans live in a childcare desert. And now add a pandemic that has stretched almost two years to the scarcity of spaces and ever-rising cost, and the stress for both child care providers and those looking for a facility has increased exponentially.
In the Granite State, 54,000 children under 6 years old needed child care but there were only 33,000 licensed slots, according to the February 2021 study Constraints on New Hampshire’s Workforce Recovery by NH Department of Health and Human Services. That's a 40% shortfall, and most certainly some centers have since closed making the gap even wider.
“I can’t tell you the frequency of calls I get (from parents on the waiting list) asking if there are any spaces yet,” said Wren Hayes, owner of Building Block Commons in Exeter, a private school that serves children from 2 years 9 months old to 8th grade, with the majority of its population in the prime child care time of 2 years 9 months to 5 years old. “There is a dire sense in their voice, saying they have to quit their job (if they don’t get care) or ‘we need help.’ The urgency in these calls is something I’ve never seen before.”
Hayes said that before the pandemic she had a waiting list of maybe 50 kids, though it was “flexible” as she was able to move things around to accommodate as many people as possible. Now that number has ballooned to 206 (for 86 available spots).
“We’ve even been offered more money, but of course, we have to say ‘no’,” she said. “That’s how desperate people are now.”
A Place to Grow in Brentwood is licensed to care for 52 kids, but owner Jennifer Legere says they usually have around 39 due to what they are comfortable with given space and staffing. She said her waiting list has grown to a three-year wait.
“If you live in New Hampshire you literally have to look for child care when you find out you are pregnant because there isn’t enough,” said Legere.
At the start of Covid, with so many Granite Staters losing jobs or working from home, A Place to Grow saw the number of its students cut in half. Legere was able to fill some of those spots with children of frontline and essential workers. She said she “rebounded” with full capacity two months later. But that hasn’t made the past 20 months a smooth ride.
“Every day (during the pandemic) has been a roller coaster,” said Leger. “We’ve had the highest of highs and lowest of lows. But, as my assistant director has said, “you gotta tuck and roll to get through it every day.”
“I walk in Monday morning and think the day is going to be great and then two hours later … you just don’t know. Managing (staffing and kids being sick) is the hardest part.”
In addition to the problem of more kids than spaces in New Hampshire child care, the issue of staffing is a major concern. Low wages, job instability and stressful working conditions have resulted in 80% of centers across the country claiming staffing shortages, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children survey in the summer of 2021. Half of the 7,500 centers that took part in the survey said they have fewer spots and reduced hours because of it.
“It is very, very challenging to hire,” said Marianne Barter, executive director of Merrimack Valley Day Care Service, which has five centers in Concord and Boscawen. “I’ve had an ad for three preschool teachers for two months and (the response) has been just … crickets. (There are ) very few applicants and ones that did apply did not have (the correct) qualifications.”
Legere, at A place to Grow, said she recently received 25 applications for open positions - a higher-than-usual number. But when she contacted them within a day, half didn’t even call back.
Legere and Hayes are doing their part to help lessen the child care shortfall. Legere is starting to franchise her business. She said they are close to the first new A Place to Grow to increase the number of locations to four. Hayes said she added a second session that opened 26 more spots.
Legere is taking it one step further as she is advocating for help from the state of New Hampshire if the Build Back Better Act ends up passing. She hopes some of the funds from the federal act, passed on Nov. 19, can be used to provide funding for new child care locations and help find locations, provide livable wages for workers, and provide assistance for families.
In addition, Legere has talked with the Department of Health and Human Services, other child care providers, and licensing boards to brainstorm on new ideas to solve some of the many child care issues.
“It’s a real complex situation in New Hampshire,” Legere said. “What has been amazing is our local early childhood community. It has done a really great job coming together to support the industry to fix this. There has been a lot of amazing groundwork being done inside the state.
“I feel like it was every man for himself before the pandemic. We all did a lot of stuff to stay in the loop but at this point, it’s a team. We are all working together to keep ourselves alive.”
There’s a new state bill that was introduced in July called the Workforce Behind the Workforce Act of 2022, which “establishes a child care workforce fund to provide grants to eligible child care programs for child care workforce recruitment and retention bonuses and benefits.” It has not been assigned a bill number and is expected to be presented in 2022. It, too, has the potential to cut down the number of children waiting for child care.
Pictured A Place to Grow owner Jennifer Legere shows David Campbell a flower.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.