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Child care limits also lifted by governor’s order, but finding workers may be tough

The number of vacant jobs at child care centers has tripled, just as Floridians are heading back to work.

It’s not just summer camps that have been affected by lifted statewide restrictions on youth activities. Child care centers that had been limiting their classes to nine children per teacher have now learned they can go back to full enrollment.

A Zoom meeting held Thursday by the Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition's board of directors planned to discuss a report from last week on what was considered a critical shortage of child care. That has been negated, said Lindsay Carson, the CEO of the organization.

Though Gov. Ron DeSantis focused on summer camps and athletics when he made his announcement Friday lifting all restrictions on youth activities, the final draft of his order arrived Tuesday with the added words “and child care.”

Though DeSantis has said his orders related to the coronavirus pandemic didn’t close child cares, limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people effectively halted the business model that put as many as 25 children together in a classroom. Nearly 60 percent of the child care centers in Pinellas County have closed these past months, and the ELC feared many would never reopen.

Of the 679 private child care centers in Hillsborough County, 312 were closed during the peak of the shutdown, said Gordon Gillette, CEO of the Hillsborough Early Learning Coalition. That number is down to 56 closed centers as of this week. Even with slots reserved for children of first responders and health care workers, there is an estimated 5,000 spaces available in the centers, he said.

“I think parents and families are still keeping their kids home for the most part and the supply of child care is exceeding demand at this point,” Gillette told the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group on Thursday afternoon.

Now the concern in Pinellas is the work force behind the work force. The focus shifts to having enough child care workers to meet the demand as Floridians head back to work. Just as employment is starting to rise, so is the rate of unfilled jobs at child care centers.

In an ELC survey of local providers, the number of unfilled positions went from 2 percent in March to 6 percent in May. It’s not just a local trend. A survey of child care providers conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 85 percent of child care operators are running on less than half their regular enrollment capacity, and the majority of those are operating at less than 25 percent of capacity.

“The staff who are furloughed in many cases are earning more on unemployment than as preschool teachers because of the added $600 a week from the federal stimulus,” Carson said.

Plus, closed technical schools and community colleges have shut down the pipeline of newly certified teachers. As a result, the ELC is working with CareerSource Tampa Bay and St. Pete Works to provide online instructions and certifications to get more child care workers trained and certified.

To address the workforce shortage, the ELC is working with CareerSource Pinellas and St. Pete Works to recruit, screen and train new child care workers. There are currently 32 listings on the Community Jobs board on ELC website for local childcare providers, Carson said. “As parents return to work, we’ll need to fill even more positions.

Emergency Care Scholarships worth an average of $5,000 per child ihave been given to first responders and health care workers through the emergency relief funds passed by Congress. But a host of other essential employees, from grocery clerks to delivery drivers, could also be eligible for child care help.

The ELC board voted unanimously on Thursday to seek state approval to allow the organization to prioritize the child care subsidies for low-income, essential workers that don’t qualify for the Emergency Care Scholarships.

Carson also alerted the board that Florida’s free Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program may have an option available to families whose VPK school year was cut short. If a child had not completed at least 70 of their VPK program because of an extreme hardship, they will be able to re-enroll and take VPK over the summer.

“The pandemic qualifies them for re-enrollment and would give them a full summer VPK program,” Carson said, though she noted that might be just a small portion of this year’s VPK class, since kids who started last fall hit the 70 percent mark already. Still, it’s an option for those who might have started VPK late.

Board member Susan Rolston, who also serves on the Juvenile Welfare Board, said when she saw the news that the state would waive its previous policies and allow parents to elect to hold their children back and let them repeat this school year, “I had assumed it included VPK."

No, Carson said. She said she has been told firmly by the state Department of Education that parents will not have the option of repeating VPK.

“I’m fully aware there’s a cost associated with that, but it is a lot cheaper to repeat a VPK year than it is to repeat a third grade year,” Carson said. “If we can take the time to invest early on at a smaller level and give children those foundational supports, that may be a better investment so they are more successful in the K-12 system.”

Rolston agreed.

Lisa McClendon-Brailsford, program facilitator, Girls Inc., Pinellas Park, helps student Kristina Williams, 9, Clearwater with her stain glass window art project while social distancing, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Girls Inc. was previously an after school care facility for girls, but is now a full-day facility for the female children in the care of essential workers. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Many of the closed child care centers the ELC surveyed plan to reopen in June. They will still have some safety standards in place, such as temperature checks and limiting parents entering the building by having them drop off children at the door.

The ELC will also be advocating for some kind of summer bridge program to help kids whose VPK program was cut short, to get those kids ready for kindergarten. They also want to find ways to get materials to parents who have elected to keep their kids at home, and ways to give kids coping skills.

“Our kids are going through a lot,” Carson said. “They miss their teacher and their friends and when they return to that cozy place, they will find adults wearing masks.”

Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.

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