FRAMINGHAM  More than 60% of Framingham children ages 3 and 4 are not attending any form of preschool, a gap that city officials and those in the industry attribute to a shortage of early childhood education professionals. 

“Every place you go in the Framingham area, there are waiting lists for child care  it’s terrible,” Mayor Charlie Sisitsky said during a forum last month on economic development.

The lack of early childhood education providers has led to a crunch in openings for slots in preschools and other types of pre-kindergarten day care. Heidi Kaufman, executive director of education at the MetroWest YMCA, which oversees nearly 150 children in its pre-kindergarten program, said the YMCA program is booked to full capacity and has a lengthy waiting list.

“We are 100% full and we have no wiggle room whatsoever," she said. "Our wait list is so long, we won’t have any openings in the fall, which is usually when we have openings for the general community."

Despite already operating at full capacity, Kaufman said the YMCA would like to add to its staff, rather than relying on existing staff to work longer shifts with fewer breaks. But the child care industry in general has a limited amount of staff available. Some veterans are burned out by demands brought on by the pandemic, which made preschool and child care nearly impossible. And chronic understaffing can lead to those who remain to feel overworked and unable to perform the job to their ideal standards, leading to further burnout. 

“The work was not easy before COVID, it has never been easy, wrangling a group of 20 3-year-olds and getting them to interact peacefully and support their individual growth and development, and COVID made it all more challenging,” Kaufman said. “Burnout is real, and it makes things more complicated. There is a lot of reward and benefit to the work we are doing, but when you are chronically understaffed, you struggle to provide the kind of education and support that you would like to.

"It makes it incredibly challenging, which perpetuates the cycle.” 

Teachers speak out on stress

Jen Pease, a preschool teacher at the MetroWest YMCA's Early Learning Center, came to the YMCA after working in child care for eight years in Fitchburg and Lynn. She said the challenges of the job mainly come from staffing, saying any work that needs to be done beyond just helping children is difficult to get done.

"It's very hard to get work done, because we can't do it if we don't have any time because we have to be with the children at all times," Pease said. "The only time we have is the short period of time when they are sleeping, and even then you still have those children that need attention during rest time."

Kimberly Vazquez, another YMCA teacher, said she is the only certified teacher in her classroom  her aides are interns, which makes any break time reliant on the flexibility of other teachers.

"I have to make sure to ask Jen (Pease) to come watch my classroom while I go to the bathroom, or if I have to run to the printer," Vazquez said. "It's hard for me to leave the classroom."

Framingham City Councilor John Stefanini said during last month's forum that only 38% of Framingham's approximately 1,600 children who are 3 and 4 years old are in full-day preschool. He pointed out that the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a local nonprofit, has nearly 100 open slots in its preschool program, but hasn’t been able to accept any more students because of staffing shortages.

“Ninety-nine slots for 4-year-olds unfilled, not because they don’t have funding  they have the funding  but they don’t have the staff," Stefanini said. "They can’t hire the people for them and they can’t pay the wages to keep them there. That ripples into people saying they can’t go to work because they have to take care of their child."

'Child care underpins our entire economy'

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, whose 5th Congressional District includes Framingham, said during a recent visit that the pandemic exposed the child care and preschool industries as critical backbones to the U.S. economy, and that our country does not support the industry at the same level as other wealthy nations.

“The pandemic revealed that child care and the whole care economy is really an underpinning of our entire economy and is really part of our economic infrastructure," said Clark, who serves as House Minority Whip. "For so long in this country, we have thought of it as a private matter, something for parents to figure out. We are so far behind other wealthy countries  on average, they pay $15,000 per child for the care of a child and we are at $500.” 

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Clark said child care shortages can contribute to other industry staffing shortages, as parents are unable to work if they're forced to take care of their children full time.

“We can’t continue," she said. "We had an economist talk to the Democratic caucus and when asked where all the employees were, they said it wasn’t a mystery; they are at home caring for children and aging parents, that is where they are. It’s really hard if you are working in retail in Framingham to put 25% of your income toward child care.

"It is a crisis."

Kaufman said the YMCA has adjusted its pay scale multiple times in the last two years to be more competitive. The adjustments have forced the organization to pay more for staff who often lack the experience that would previously justify higher salaries. 

“We have fewer applicants for each position, and the applicants we are getting have less experience, but we need to pay them more than we did before,” Kaufman said.

Clark noted that many people who provide care are women and people of color, which have historically been underpaid demographics.

“We are now paying the price for that,” she said. 

Promoting child care as a 'viable profession'

Kaufman said her hope is that in the future, people see child care and early childhood education as a worthy career option. But she added that there is an image issue that hinders the industry's ability to recruit strong candidates.

“There is significant workforce shortages in many industries, and a lot of people don’t see early education and care as a viable profession," she said. "When they are thinking about things they want to do, it's usually not part of their consideration. We’ve had that problem for a very long time, but it's exacerbated now. People aren’t entering the field, in part, because it’s not respected by society.” 

Despite the challenges, child care professionals are quick to point out the rewards they get from helping young children get off to a good start. Vazquez started at the YMCA as an intern and now teaches preschool to students who primarily speak Spanish or Portuguese at home.

"I really like working with kids, and that is the biggest thing for me," she said. "Some of them only speak Spanish, and some of them only speak Portuguese, and having the ability to communicate with them, when before they might have been frustrated because they couldn't communicate with anyone, they are much calmer and more understanding and it's really fun that I can help them out."

State Rep. Priscila Sousa, D-Framingham, said respect for early child care workers is not just about offering more money, but also about acknowledging the vital role they play in education. 

“The way we’ve treated early childhood professionals, it's like glorified baby sitters," Sousa said. "The cost for them goes way beyond financial, and you understand why nobody really wants to be in the industry

"We are very thankful for the people who are."


Original story HERE