Parents, early learning facility owners navigating childcare crisis

Families in our community – and across the country – are having a really tough time finding child care. Not just that – early learning centers are having a hard time finding staff to care for your child. 

A new data collected in conjunction with Harvard’s School of Public Health found one in three families faces serious problems finding child care. That’s a national figure, but local education leaders say it mirrors trends we’re seeing in Orange County and surrounding areas. 

Fox 35 reached out to 12 early learning centers in the Lake Mary area for example – and nearly half had waitlists. Some of those waitlists extended into the new year. For centers that had availability – some only had one spot open. 

It’s a hurdle moms, like Erin Ramos, faced when she needed to go back to work. 

"One place said they had 30 kids on a waitlist," said Ramos, "They said they could put our names down, but there are 30 kids ahead. It was even more challenging because I needed two spots." 

Ramos has twins. 

Data collected by the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County found hundreds of families are waiting on a call back from a daycare to say their child can enroll. 

"We sampled a little over 140 early child care programs that responded to a survey," said Dr. Mary Harper, Chief Program Officer, Early Learning Coalition of Orange County, "Of those, we found 1400 children on a waitlist because they don’t have enough teachers." 

Dr. Harper noted that number only scratches the surface of the scope of availability. She estimates if that number were quantified across her program it would push upwards of 6,000.

The staff shortage forced Executive Director Carol Foo to close two classrooms at her center.

"That would accommodate approximately 30 kids," said Foo, Executive Director Conway Learning Center, "There is a certain ratio you have to meet according to DCF and one of the challenges is having enough staff to meet the ratio and when we don’t – directors and management has to be in the classroom." 

Many early learning facility owners are trying to balance the costs to fill their classrooms with staff and students. 

"Caught between a rock and a hard place. To pay those what we know they deserve," said Dr. Harper, "but, we know it goes on the backs of parents." 

It’s estimated families may pay between $10,000 – 12,000 annually for child care. It’s a steep budget line item that’s forced some families to make significant changes during the pandemic --- like switching jobs. 

"You have to make enough – and be in a position to make enough - to be able to afford care and that wasn’t the case for me where I was. What I was making – I was ending up turning around and giving back to the same place for child care," said Emily Fairgrieve, Mom, "I had to find something that was going to bring in a little bit more for my family." 

Orange County Early Education leaders fear the industry could collapse if we don’t get more teachers in front of students. It’s working to pump money in to keep doors open - including dispersing grants over the next two years totaling $68 million to help owners onboard new staff and give financial incentives to work as a teacher. It’s also working to provide continuing education scholarships to people interested in joining the field.