Louisville daycare battles worker shortages and declining enrollment

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rose Smith looked through the window Trinity House classroom and waved at the toddlers inside, just waking up from nap. A child, still groggy, chuckled and smiled back.

Smith, owner of the daycare, walked around a classroom at the end of March, picking up a restless baby in one and stopping to admire a cute photo in another.

The center, located in the Chickasaw neighborhood of Louisville since 2007, is complete with a outdoor class certified, garden and playground. This space has been particularly useful during some of the most contagious times of the pandemic, allowing students to safely separate from one another.

Inside, the nature theme continues with pine cones and twigs decorating the ceiling and walls.

The center has a capacity of 88 children aged 0-12, but has seen its enrollment drop to 48 during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents – mostly mothers – have left the workforce and have lost their need or eligibility for child care.

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About 100,000 women in Kentucky have had to leave the workforce during the pandemic due to care-related issues, according to a Metro Centraide report.

In addition to declining enrollment, Trinity, which reportedly has two staff in each class of 10 to 12 students, has lost staff during the pandemic. Two of the six classrooms had to be closed due to lack of staff and students.

Trinity is not alone — many of the challenges facing the childcare industry have worsened during the pandemic. In fact, since March 2020, Louisville has lost 9% of its child care providers, who earn an average of $11.30 per hour, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A glimpse of the natural playground at the Trinity House Christian Childcare campus on Greenwood Avenue.  March 28, 2022

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Amid staffing and enrollment challenges compounded by COVID-19, staff say they remain focused on giving their students the best possible experience with what they have. This means hiring the best and most dedicated people possible.

Tamecia Smith, the center’s director, handles applications from potential employees. Getting people to apply has become more problematic during the pandemic, she said, adding that salaries start at around $10 for those with experience.

“You gotta love this area, definitely, right now with everything that’s going on,” she said. “Go in for only $10 where you can go to Amazon or Walmart and they offer 12 and 15…”

Many employees end up being parents who understand the need for quality care, she added.

“A lot of times they sacrifice that salary so they can be here,” she said, “to help us.”

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Trinity House Christian Childcare Director Tamecia Smith, left, and Executive Director Rose Smith sit on tree stumps in the campus' natural playground on Greenwood Avenue.  Rose began offering childcare in her basement in 2000, but opened her facility in 2007. Trinity House Christian Childcare once provided care for 88 youngsters, but since the start of the pandemic, those numbers fell to 46.

Tamecia Smith, who is not related to owner Rose, said Trinity House also had problems with the state’s processing of childcare assistance program applications.

She said typically 90% to 95% of families who send their children to daycare participate in CCAP, a state-run program that provides subsidies to pay for childcare. To be eligible for CCAP, Kentucky families must fall below 160% of the federal poverty level, which in 2021 was $42,400 for a family of four.

But it can take time for the state to process CCAP applications and ensure applicants are eligible to receive the aid. And in some cases, parents have had to remove their children from Trinity House after learning they were not approved for CCSI.

“It’s hard sometimes because, especially when you’re dealing with families that you’ve been dealing with for a very long time, it can strike a chord with you,” she said. “I think all the time about what parents might have to do when they don’t have childcare.

Resilience to the challenges of the pandemic

Despite the joys of teaching and guiding, the work has been difficult.

Employee Brittney Dansby said child care workers felt left out during the pandemic when it came to discussions about parental care, virtual school and teaching. “We’ve definitely been ignored, we’ve been undervalued,” she said.

“The pandemic was… the worst thing that could have happened, especially to our school-aged children,” Dansby said. “I absolutely hated (NTI) because we can’t get along with every kid – every kid is on a different level.”

They also had to learn new technologies while mastering the teaching materials.

There was a time when she felt so exhausted that she thought, “I can’t do this.”

It was the first time, she says, that something had pushed her to the point of wanting to give up a career in childcare.

Brittney Dansby comforts a baby at the Trinity House Christian Childcare campus on Greenwood Avenue.

The pandemic has robbed her of the balmy mornings spent in the common room, with each class singing together and preparing for the day. To be as safe as possible, each piece has remained on its own. At lunch, all the other seats were settled. No gathering. The community had disappeared.

“That was probably the first time I felt like ‘it’s not working,'” she said. “I was stressed.”

Ultimately, she was inspired by the resilience of her colleagues in the face of the same challenges and decided to stay.

She is delighted with the warmer weather when hopefully classes can meet outside again.

‘I love kids’: What keeps Trinity workers going

Myia Brown comforts a toddler at the Trinity House Christian Childcare campus on Greenwood Avenue.  March 28, 2022

Myia Brown joined the staff of Trinity House in mid-March, but has previously worked and volunteered there.

A single mother of four, Brown has worked with youngsters for a time, both paid and unpaid, and now looks after the year-old’s ward at Trinity.

Previously, she was balancing several jobs and working about 70 hours a week, but wanted the stability that came with working with her children at Trinity.

“I love kids,” she said. “When I say ‘my children’, I’m not just talking about the children I gave birth to.” She loves seeing kids grow up, she said — potty training, leaving baby rooms, learning to show off their unique personalities.

“Every little personality is different, every child is different,” she said. “I love that…being able to teach…knowing that I helped teach someone else something that they could take with them for the rest of their life.”

Contact health journalist Sarah Ladd at sladd@courier-journal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ladd_sarah.

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