Child Care Centers Are Turning Away Families Due to Teacher Turnover

February 15, 2023 By Audrey Breen, audreybreen@virginia.edu Audrey Breen, audreybreen@virginia.edu

While teacher turnover is a longtime problem in child care, new data shows that since COVID-19 began, centers’ inability to keep or hire teachers has led many to turn families away.

“Teacher turnover before the pandemic was already an issue,” University of Virginia early childhood education expert Daphna Bassok said. “But since the onset of COVID, the magnitude of the problem has really grown.”

Bassok, Batten Bicentennial Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at the School of Education and Human Development and Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, is the associate director of the EdPolicyWorks research center and leads the Study of Early Education Through Partnerships. She said teacher shortages are so pronounced that early childhood education centers across the nation cannot serve the children and families they once did.

“It’s no longer just that turnover is compromising program quality,” Bassok said. “Center directors are saying they have to shut down classrooms or have long waitlists. The shortages and the teacher issues are so pronounced that centers literally cannot run. They can’t keep serving families that they would like to serve, because they can’t find people to work there.”

Studies published by Bassok and her team tell the story of the immense struggles to staff child care centers prior to and during the pandemic.  

Recent data from Virginia shows that two-thirds of the publicly funded child care sites reported turning families away due to staffing problems, and nearly half indicated they closed down classrooms. During the pandemic, 92% of those surveyed in Virginia reported difficulties staffing their sites.

“Our findings suggest that the children most in need of stable, engaging care and education are the ones most likely to access sites that are understaffed and struggling to meet families’ needs,” Bassok said.

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Child care teaching is low-paying, hard work and many child care teachers experience poverty. Bassok’s work shows that during the pandemic – a time when many employers like retail stores and fast-food restaurants were increasing wages – child care wages remained largely unchanged. Among child care teachers who remained, depression and food insecurity rose.

“Although many site leaders believe their teachers need higher wages, they cannot pay them without raising costs to levels families just cannot sustain,” Bassok said.

But there is good news on the horizon.

Bassok has long been working with both Louisiana and Virginia to support efforts to improve access to quality early childhood education. In the last few years, those efforts have increasingly focused on addressing workforce shortages.

“Our work now, especially in Virginia, is helping think through strategies to address this,” she said.

One of those strategies is a teacher-focused incentive program that pays qualifying teachers a one-time stipend. Last December, Bassok’s team published initial findings of the Teacher Recognition Program, a pilot program that offered early educators up to $1,500 if they continued teaching for longer than an eight-month period.

“What we found was that these incentives of just $1,500 cut teacher turnover in half in Northern Virginia, which was huge,” Bassok said.

Working closely with partners in Virginia like Jenna Conway, deputy superintendent in the Virginia Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Care and Education, Bassok’s research offered the evidence needed to expand the program. This year, all teachers in publicly funded programs are eligible, and this year, they’ll be eligible for $2,500. That number increases to $3,000 next year.

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Bassok’s study documenting the success of the Teacher Recognition Program, now called Recognize B5, got attention from outside Virginia, as well.

“The U.S. Treasury called it out in their report on financing of child care because it is a really clear piece of evidence,” Bassok said. “Policymakers are looking for ways to effectively spend COVID relief dollars to stabilize the early childhood workforce.”

This evidence is hopeful, but to date, many recent teacher incentive programs are paid for with funding related to federal COVID relief funds from the American Rescue Plan and those funds are set to expire. And that poses a second challenge.

“These incentives are meant to recognize the hard work of teachers and meant to stabilize the workforce,” Bassok explained. “They do seem to be effective, but we also recognize that they are not enough and do not create a sustainable funding source for a long-term solution.”

Virginia is one of the first places nationwide, along with Washington, D.C., and New Mexico, to try a new way of funding child care that aims to capture the true costs of compensating early educators.

But these are new policies just getting started and, according to Bassok, evaluating their impact long-term is critical. She and her team have just been awarded a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate the impacts of Virginia’s compensation reforms on teacher wellbeing, teacher stability and improved access to quality child care.

“Without a doubt, teachers are the most important part of high-quality early care and education systems,” Bassok said. “Efforts to make larger, more sustained investments in this workforce are a critical step toward ensuring young children and families have the programs they need.”

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Audrey Breen

Senior Writer and Research Communications Strategist School of Education and Human Development