Early in the morning of April 26, Alex Kulczycki lined up at the Walter Ambrose Family Center to secure spots for his fourth grade twins in the Webster Groves School District‘s Adventure Club before and after school care program. The office opened at 7:30 a.m. Kulczycki’s application was time stamped at 7:36 a.m. His children were candidates 39 and 40.
On July 19, Kulczycki learned that her children had been placed on a waiting list for Adventure Club, leaving her family only five weeks to find daycare before school starts.
Kulczycki’s experience is not unique, as child care centers across the country struggle to bring employees back to pre-pandemic numbers. According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, while thousands of jobs are added each month, child care employment still lags the U.S. economy as a whole, creating tricky situations for working parents.
“It’s so stressful not knowing where you’re going to put your kids. My children are the most important thing in the world to me,” said Susan Stygar, Kulczycki’s wife.
While the couple’s children were eventually able to secure places in the program, dozens of other families were not. According to data from the Webster Groves School District, as of August 2, 147 students were still waiting to be placed at the Adventure Club. Edgar Road Elementary School was the hardest hit, with 58 students on the waiting list.
Sandy Wiley Skinner, the school district‘s assistant superintendent of human resources, said capacity comes down to the number of employees.
“We try to stay between a 12 to 1 and 15 to 1 ratio of children per adult,” Wiley Skinner said. “People wonder why we can’t take more, but if someone is away, it’s easier for an adult to look after 24 children than for that member of staff to have 40 children. If we get two five-day staff at a school, that could quickly remove 28 kids from the waiting list. If you hire four, that’s almost 50 children. It really is a numbers game. Every hire counts.
It’s a similar story at other daycares in the area. Kirkwood KinderCare has a waiting list for infants and one-year-olds that extends into the next year. The infant program at Goddard School in Rock Hill is booked through 2024. The Kirkwood School District, which also offers an Adventure Club program, has 47 students on its waiting list.
“We don’t have an enrollment cap for any campus. If we have the space and staff, we will continue to enroll students on this campus,” said Jennifer Hahn, director of the Kirkwood Adventure Club. “Our hope is that our waiting list will be relieved by mid-September. For each additional new hire, we may invite at least 15 students from a school’s waiting list.
Hahn said that while the Kirkwood School District faced staffing issues last year, with some families waiting several months to be removed from the wait list, the district has anticipated an increase in demand this year and has worked to hire additional staff. To increase recruiting, the district also raised the starting wage to $15.75 per hour.
But not all centers have been able to stay competitive. According to Child Care Aware of America, the average child care worker earned just $12.24 per hour in May 2020.
Julie Johnson, director of Kirkwood KinderCare, said pay at her company starts at $13.90, which is all the company can offer after taking a hit to stay open during the pandemic. The company struggles to hire employees for the fall as students hired during the summer return to school.
“We receive calls every day. I hate turning families away because I know there is such a need. This is not where we want to be. Hiring is holding us back,” she said. “Our salary is low compared to what fast food places are starting. I had someone who wanted a crazy amount of money – and she was earning that at Lion’s Choice. We couldn’t match her.
According to Wiley Skinner of the Webster Groves School District, where adventure club employees are paid $15 an hour, pay isn’t the only factor hampering recruiting efforts.
Adventure Club operates before and after school only, from 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 2:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. Those hours, she says, are hard to accommodate for anyone already working at another job, and part-time positions don’t include benefits.
Some parents have suggested that teachers should just stay late in their classrooms to accommodate students. But Wiley Skinner said it wasn’t that easy.
“For teachers to work at Adventure Club, they would work 10 hours a day, five days a week, in addition to lesson plans and preparation for parent/teacher conferences. Then they bring more work home and it interferes with family time and other responsibilities,” she said. “It creates a level of stress if you don’t have time to breathe. Making it a requirement is a difficult task.
To attract employees, the district sends flyers to high school students and visits college campuses to meet with students. The District is also hosting a career fair on Saturday, August 6, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the District Central Office, 400 E. Lockwood Ave.
Wiley Skinner remains hopeful that hiring will pick up in the fall when jobs become immediately available.
“I just want people to know that we sympathize and understand. All of us here who are working feverishly on this file know what it’s like to need child care,” she said. “We understand and we do everything possible to ensure that quality people are present in front of your children.”