Youth & Family Outreach
Children play at Youth & Family Outreach on Cumberland Avenue in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Schools across the nation resume classes this week, and many have spent the past month reconfiguring their reopening plans to account for the recent surge in the coronavirus Delta variant.

But another industry that families rely on is also in crisis, largely without the help of state public health mandates: day care providers.

In Portland, waitlists for many day cares are as long as ever, but the centers are having unprecedented difficulties hiring staff. To make matters more difficult, the facilities serve children too young to be vaccinated. Many are also too young to wear masks and require care that makes physical distancing impossible. 

Camelia Babson-Haley
Camelia Babson-Haley, executive director of Youth & Family Outreach, said the center is an “anomaly” among day care providers because it has enough staff amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

A study published last month by the American Sociological Association found that two-thirds of the nation’s day care facilities closed in April 2020, and one-third remained closed a year later. Earlier this week The Atlantic reported that even at open centers, many workers have refused to return to work due to low wages and the inherent risk of COVID-19 being transmitted by unvaccinated children.  

Lack of guidance

Compared to the “horror stories” she has heard about other day cares right now, Camelia Babson-Haley, executive director of Youth & Family Outreach on Cumberland Avenue, said her organization is doing well.

Still, she said navigating how to operate in the absence of “the very clear guidance” the state and federal government have given public schools during the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges of the past 18 months.

“We’re early education, we’re caring for children and families day in and day out yet we weren’t given the same attention to navigate this really tricky situation of how (we can) be together in a group,” Babson-Haley said.

Additionally, she said since Youth & Family Outreach’s population is mostly low-income, many parents do not have jobs that allow employees to work from home, which makes the facility more vital.

Last year during the beginning of the pandemic Youth & Family Outreach began serving school-aged children through a partnership with Portland Public Schools. Babson-Haley said the agreement helped the center stay afloat because it benefitted from the schools’ stimulus funding. The last of the school-aged children left last week.

“The reality for our world is that schools also provide child care, so when a school’s not open a working parent can’t keep their job, can’t keep working, and can’t take care of their family,” she said.

YFO is also launching a multi-million dollar capital campaign to build 60 affordable housing units on its property, which will further help local low-income families. 

Staffing problems

It has managed to mostly dodge hiring difficulties, which Babson-Haley said she realizes makes it an “anomaly” among day care providers. Part of the reason she believes the center has been able to retain its staff is that it has continued to pay hazard wages.

To do so, however, it had to increase tuition last year, which she said is unfortunate for the program’s families.

Still, when the center has occasionally posted a job it has received “very few applicants,” Babson-Haley said.

At the Goldman Family Preschool, which is run by the Jewish Community Alliance on outer Congress Street, School Program Director Wendy Getchell said hiring is more difficult now than she has ever seen.

The school is short four teachers for its 72 students ages 6 weeks to 5 years old, Getchell said. Most staff members at the school have master’s degrees, and openings are usually competitive, attracting 20 or more applicants.

Now she is only seeing one or two people apply every couple of weeks. 

“I reach out (to candidates) right away,” Getchell said. “There are so many jobs out there right now I don’t want them to get scooped up. They don’t reply; they schedule an interview and don’t show up. I’ve never experienced that and I’ve been working in early childhood a very long time.”

Karen Peters, program coordinator at Catherine Morrill Day Nursery on Danforth Street, echoed that and said although her organization offers a good starting wage and benefits package it still seems to be “not enough.”

“I think people are choosing different careers and different options,” she said. 

Student safety

A consistent difficulty for all three of these day care providers is keeping their students safe during the pandemic when many of them cannot wear masks or be vaccinated. 

At Youth & Family Outreach, only staff members wear masks, and classrooms are kept separate. Children age 3 and older also wear masks in addition to staff members at Catherine Morrill.

Babson-Haley said it’s important to remember that children, especially those 5 and younger, need to be “held, cuddled, and hugged,” making social distancing impossible. Day care providers cannot overlook the social-emotional needs of early childhood education, she said, just because the world is in the midst of a pandemic.

But still, the dangers posed by the virus remain.

“We’ve heard from public health officials that if there were a year to be concerned about children and closing down programs,” Babson-Haley said, “this would be the year.