Since February 2020, the U.S. labor force has lost just over a million women from its ranks. Several factors contributed to the loss, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, including a lack of affordable and flexible childcare options for working women.
The Greater Pittsburgh region isn’t immune to the problem. Staffing shortages at local daycares and preschools—coupled with fewer flexible options—have created headaches for mothers who find themselves called back to the office after working remotely during the pandemic.
Traditionally, men have experienced higher rates of unemployment than women. However, since the pandemic took hold in April 2020, women’s unemployment rates have surpassed men’s at 4.1 percent. Three years later, it still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Of the women who didn’t return to the workforce, 58 percent attributed a lack of childcare as the primary factor, according to chamber data.
Julie Byrnes-Stanny, assistant director of Heart Prints Center for Early Education in Cranberry, said she’s not surprised by the data. All childcare centers in the state closed down for 2.5 months during the height of the pandemic when the governor ordered all non-essential businesses closed.
“Some schools closed permanently during the pandemic because they didn’t have the operating capital to stay afloat during the shutdown,” she said. “Those closings have further limited already limited options for parents.”
Krista Charlton, director of Kiddie Tech at A.W. Beattie Career Center, said that like other daycare centers and preschools in the area, they are hiring staff because of increased demand.
With some daycares and preschools closing, those that remain open are seeing greater interest from working mothers looking for reliable and flexible options.
Both Kiddie Tech and Heart Prints Center have waiting lists for new students. “We’ve had a waitlist because of the pandemic,” said Charlton. “But we’re finally able to start admitting new families because we have preschoolers who are graduating to kindergarten this year.”
Kiddie Tech enrolls throughout the year as openings become available. Registration is once per family, with all current families given priority for spaces each year before admitting any new students.
Heart Prints Center follows a similar registration protocol that prioritizes current enrollees. In January, they hold an in-house registration event. Once all existing families have the opportunity to re-enroll, any open spots are then posted and available to the general public in February. “We generally fill pretty quickly,” said Byrnes-Stanny. “Registration opens at 10 a.m. and we’re usually full by 10:15.”
Neither charge for holding a spot on the waiting list. “Some facilities charge a registration fee to be on their waiting lists,” said Byrnes-Stanny. “We don’t do that here. You only get charged once you’re admitted to the program.”
Heart Prints Center and Kiddie Tech cater to slightly different crowds. Heart Prints operates a preschool program between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. for 3- and 4-year-old children, and Kiddie Tech serves children ages 6 weeks through age 5. During the summer months, they also have a school-aged program for children ages 6 to 8.
Though Heart Prints Center is not a full-service daycare with extended hours, Byrnes-Stanny said they receive a lot of calls from parents trying to place their children into extended-care services. “With us, they have to weigh what’s more important—the extended hours or a preschool with an academically-enriched environment.”
Some parents who couldn’t consider Heart Prints Center before can now do so because they have more flexible hours with their jobs or work from home. “We’ve had a lot more people show interest in us who wouldn’t have been able to use our services before,” said Byrnes-Stanny.
In the past, Heart Prints Center struggled to fill their kindergarten classes, but that program has seen significant growth since the pandemic. Now, they’ve got an extended waitlist for parents eager to enroll their children because parents have more flexibility to drop off and pick up children throughout the day. Some children who attend half-day public school kindergarten programs come to Heart Prints Center for the other half of the day.
Heart Prints Centers’ kindergarten program has a hybrid component. The curriculum uses the Pennsylvania Department of Education learning standards as a checklist. However, all learning is hands-on through project work.
“The goal of doing it this way is to produce well-rounded students,” said Byrnes-Stanny. “It helps them become capable and develop the skillsets they need to succeed in first grade. From a really young age, they’re building those leadership and self-help skills.”
The preschool program at Heart Prints Center follows a combination of the Reggio Emilia and Montessori philosophies. Both emphasize the child as central to their learning through child-led, engaging experiences.
Kiddie Tech’s regular operating hours are 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., giving working parents the extended-day option if needed. The fee schedule is based on part-time or full-time monthly attendance.
“Kiddie Tech’s tuition is slightly lower than other daycare centers because we do not provide lunches,” said Charlton. “Parents pack their kids’ lunches daily. We do, however, provide milk, a morning and afternoon snack, and wipes for children in diapers. This helps keep the cost down for our families.”
They also offer part-time and full-time attendance options. “Some daycares had to eliminate their part-time options because of the pandemic,” said Charlton. “They couldn’t accommodate both options due to lower staff levels.”
Although Kiddie Tech has their own staff year-round, there is an opportunity for the students in the Early Childhood Education Program at Beattie to apply to work part-time for a cooperative education experience. All staff of Kiddie Tech must meet all of the required guidelines for daycare staff.
Charlton said the biggest benefit Kiddie Tech offers to working parents is the peace of mind of knowing they have staff with many years of experience. “It’s reassuring to know the center you’re using doesn’t have a high turnover rate for staff,” she said. “Most of our teachers are mothers themselves and are here because they love working with children.”