McHenry County's child care availability reaching 'crisis' level as more teachers leave
Garrett Soucy says he's struggled to find child care options for his daughter during the past two pandemic years.
A single father who lives in Crystal Lake, Soucy said he has been able to work from home to fill in the gaps. In the meantime, he's been on several waitlists -- in some cases not getting his number called until his daughter had aged out of the open room.
With most of his family out of state, his options are thin, he said.
"I found help through the park district, but it's only for, like, half the day," Soucy said. "But it's better than nothing."
In a field that even before the COVID-19 pandemic had a shortage of employees, child care centers across McHenry County are seeing waiting lists fill up. As more people are going back to in-person work, the need for child care in McHenry County is further straining an industry already stretched thin.
"Going into the pandemic, child care was in the initial stages of what we call a crisis," said Kim Lamz, director of the McHenry County branch of Community Coordinated Child Care, also called 4-C's. "Coming out of the pandemic, we're pretty much there."
The field is something many are starting to shy away from entering, Lamz said. The biggest reason being lack of pay, along with it being a "thankless job," she said
The pandemic exacerbated that exodus, Lamz said. Even as things shut down, front-line health care workers needed people to watch their children. But in the face of this, providers, including many home-based ones, opted out.
"We saw many providers saying, 'I don't want to do that anymore, I don't want to take that risk and bring people into my home,'" Lamz said.
McHenry County's network of child care centers and homes has capacity for about 8,000 kids, Lamz said. This compares with a need of 16,000 children younger than five. As a result, some centers are seeing waitlists reach almost 100 children.
Cheryl Rudd, director at Friendship House Child Development Center in Crystal Lake, said its waitlist has about 27 children on it. Rudd said that low wages are causing younger people to avoid the field. So, when older teachers retire, they're often not being replaced.
"As people age out of the field, we're finding it very difficult to get good quality child care teachers," Rudd said. "I would call it almost a crisis."
The lack of teachers has caused Friendship House, as well as others, to trim hours and the number of roster spots. This, in turn, is affecting families trying to get back to work.
Victoria Sciame of Cary said she was lucky compared with many other parents looking for child care. She had a daughter enrolled at Friendship House and had another child in December 2021. Although she already had one child in the center, it took nearly 10 months to get her second child enrolled, she said.
To tide her over during that time, Sciame's 82-year-old grandmother came to live with her for several months so she could go to work. In July, her child was accepted.
"Not a lot of people have that help," she said. "If I didn't have that help I don't know what I would have done."
Soucy said he's been told some centers have room, just not enough teachers yet.
The state and federal governments have started focusing more on early care and education, Lamz said. Grants and funding for child care providers to help expand centers are being doled out.
Not having in-person schooling available made families have to figure out arrangements for their children, which forced many officials across the country to take a closer look at the issue, Lamz said.
To help this, there also are programs and scholarships available to help get people back in school and on track to become a child care teacher, Lamz said.
"It's great. ... However, you can expand your child care all you want, but if nobody is there to teach the kids you can't put anybody in those classrooms," Lamz said. "It's kind of a Catch 22."