By Lorraine Greer
Much of the recent news about child care has focused on labor shortages, triggering a lack of available openings and creating child care challenges for working families that rely on these services. While wage pressures are real, some very creative efforts have been put in place over the past few years that have enabled some centers to reduce ongoing operational costs and invest these savings into staff resources and benefits that help centers with longer term sustainability.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered numerous efforts to help various industries, such as child care, survive. When the stay-at-home order went into effect in March 2020, programs could become an Emergency Child Care Program (ECCP) to care for the children of essential workers or they could choose to close temporarily and access CARES ACT funds to cover losses. Early support helped child care providers like ours retain staff during this trying time. As we contemplated the fate of the center when we re-opened and faced a series of unimaginable challenges around health and safety, we wanted to take a more strategic look at how we could remain sustainable.
Since this time, more than $140 million in new resources have been committed and are flowing into the state for child care, with nearly $100 million going directly to providers. Some of this funding enabled centers to fund structural and physical improvements that enhanced centers, improved systems and services, and freed up operational funds to direct elsewhere. Sunrise Children’s Center has taken this approach through grant funds and it is paying off.
In addition, nearly $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) discretionary funds will soon be available to support child care providers, families, and businesses impacted by the pandemic. Sunrise wants to share our story so that others might be encouraged to consider similar strategies to help ensure that this critical sector can meet future demands and support families.
Each year at Sunrise, we adopt an inspirational theme and for 2022, it seems very applicable — “Dream. Believe. Dare. Do.” It is our true dream to be a visionary program and to model an early education program that is recognized for its high-quality practices. The N.H. Granite Steps for Quality (GSQ) is New Hampshire’s Quality Recognition and Improvement System (QRIS) that promotes and incentivizes a culture of continuous quality improvement for child care programs.
Sunrise will be pursuing our GSQ score in August 2022. However, infrastructure challenges can get in the way. Like many childcare centers, our list of facility needs is significant and the required investment to address them is daunting. We believe we can address this challenge and have dared ourselves to get it done.
Through diligence, opportunity and creativity, we developed a vision for our future center and plan to realize that vision by this fall through grant funds from a variety of sources, including the Child Care Achieving Stabilization Program (CCASP) and COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) funds administered by the NH Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Sunrise will use these funds, as well as other donated money and resources, for numerous purposes. The most visible project will be a completely new playground that will be a centerpiece for the center. The project includes new playground equipment, a grassy field and new fencing.
By enhancing our outside space, Sunrise will pursue outdoor learning and certification as an “Outdoor Classroom” that will serve as a nature-based play and learning space. With the support of Kaplan Early Learning Co., we will be upgrading all classroom equipment, cabinetry, counters and flooring. These improvements will modernize our classrooms, create operational efficiencies, and enhance the learning and caring that occur at our center.
Child care relies heavily on dedicated staff that focus first on children and their well-being. It makes sense that staffing support takes up a significant amount of the average center’s budget; facility and operational costs typically account for just 15 percent of the total budget. We encourage centers to take advantage of the unique funding opportunities available now to invest in the infrastructure of child care centers and possibly reduce issues that could contribute to future debt.
While salaries and workforce shortages will remain a challenge for the child care industry and need to be highlighted, the unfortunate reality is that facility issues can lead to accidents, safety challenges, and even the closure of a child care center. Improved facilities enhance the learning and caring environment for all.
Chester’s Lorraine Greer is director of Sunrise Children’s Center, which is a program of the Regional Services and Education Center, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Amherst.