October 7, 2021

As staff shortages worsen, early learning providers are turning some families away

Migrant preschool students learn shapes. - (FILE PHOTO: Peter Balonon-Rosen/IPB News)

Migrant preschool students learn shapes.

(FILE PHOTO: Peter Balonon-Rosen/IPB News)

Millions of dollars in grant funding is being made available to help stabilize the early learning and child care industry, but as providers wait for cash to flow their way, worsening staff shortages are forcing some to abruptly close. 

Early learning providers said they're struggling to retain staff because of things like low pay, long hours, and piles of paperwork needed to onboard new hires. 

Mike Emkes is the owner representative for Jill's House Preschool in Bloomington. He said some families have had to suddenly find care elsewhere in recent days as the center temporarily closed.

"We were so, so short staffed this week we're in – we were supposed to be open Monday through Wednesday and we were not at all," he said. 

Federal COVID-19 relief has excited early learning advocates; the state's largest early learning nonprofit has said it provides an "unprecedented" opportunity for child care and preschool providers to invest in things like facility upgrades or develop new business models, and to help families afford care.

READ MORE: Report: No county in Indiana offers 'adequate' access to high-quality early learning

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This week, Indiana also announced a new multi-million dollar grant program to help providers navigate a wide-range of financial challenges as the pandemic continues.

But some worry the new program won't be enough to keep them open, and question how much temporary funding will help the industry stabilize in the long-term.

Erin Emerson is the executive director of the Perry County Development Corporation. She said the only licensed child care center in the rural county has had to turn some families away as they arrived to drop kids off for care, and is at risk of closing for good because of forced closures that have crippled the center's limited revenue. 

She said she's hopeful about the possibilities of the new stabilization grants – but providers have to be currently open and operating to receive those dollars.

"So for the providers that have already closed or those that are right on the edge, you know, stabilization comes too late," Emerson said. 

Emerson said she doesn't see how the industry can recover without local community support – particularly in rural areas – as well as major policy changes at the state and federal levels. 

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

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