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Cynthia Smith McCollum, who oversees two private child care centers in Austin, Texas, is sure that requiring her staff to get vaccinated was the right choice, even though it meant losing six of them.

“There was a lot of sadness, but I did not ever question that it was the right decision for the children,” McCollum said.

A few of the people who left because of the mandate had worked for decades at Open Door Preschools, which focus on serving children with developmental differences alongside typically developing peers. One longtime employee told her he wouldn’t get vaccinated if someone held a gun to his head.

Cynthia Smith McCollum, director of Open Door Preschools in Texas, talks to a child during morning outdoor playtime. Like many child care center directors, she’s struggled to find staff during the pandemic. Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report

“The difficulty was just in people’s choices,” she said. “And as a leader you feel responsible for the people who were on your team.”

Since those staffers left in late summer, the centers have been able to fill only two of the vacancies — both with returning former employees. McCollum said she hasn’t been able to find a single new hire for the open positions, despite offering $11 to $18 an hour, which she said is about the average child care wage in her area.

Requiring vaccines for child care workers makes scientific sense, experts say. Preschool teachers and infant and toddler caregivers work directly with the people likely to go longest without access to vaccines: young children. Kids younger than 5, of whom 60 percent typically spend at least some time each week in nonparental child care, aren’t expected to be eligible for vaccines until 2022. But with child care providers fleeing the field — about 90 percent of pre-pandemic child care jobs are filled right now — there’s concern that mandates will make it that much harder to hire otherwise qualified staff.

“I think that what happens is that we are appreciated and congratulated and loved for what we do, but it just does not come out monetary-wise.”

LaTrice Jones, teacher at Open Door Preschools

About 78 percent of the child care workforce was vaccinated, a higher portion than in the general public, according to a survey that was conducted between May 26 and June 23 as part of a Yale-led study. Black child care providers, those with the lowest household incomes, and home-based providers were vaccinated at lower rates than the child care workforce as a whole. Concerns about the safety of the vaccine and the speed of its development were cited as among the top reasons for not vaccinating, as opposed to lack of access.

“The last year showed us that child care providers are the workforce that makes all other workforces possible,” said Dr. Kavin Patel, an infectious disease fellow at Yale School of Medicine and a co-author of the report. “If we don’t have a working child care system, we can’t work.”

While many see vaccines as protection for child care workers who put themselves at risk during a pandemic, it’s also true that little time or money has been spent on looking out for this workforce in the past, added Walter Gilliam, a child psychiatry professor at Yale who is also a co-author of the report.

“If we really want to protect the workforce, we have to pay them better,” Gilliam said.

Related: Four ways to rebuild a better early ed system

Low pay is the main reason the country’s already shaky child care system is crumbling.

Four out of five child care businesses were understaffed this summer, according to a survey by NAEYC, a professional organization for child care providers. About a third of providers surveyed said they were considering leaving their program or closing their child care center or home-based program, and 81 percent said low pay was a key reason to leave the field. A September report by the U.S. Treasury Department pointed out that child care workers earn wages in the second percentile of all occupations.

“The free market works well in many different sectors, but child care is not one of them,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen when the report was released. “It does not work for the caregivers. It does not work for the parents. It does not work for the kids.”

She added, “Child care is a textbook example of a broken market.”

A child plays outside at Open Door Preschool during morning free time. Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report

Providers leaving the field find better-paying jobs in food service, retail and banking, according to multiple news reports published in the last few weeks.

LaTrice Jones, 45, has worked in the child care field since she left the Army 21 years ago. She’s a lead teacher at one of the Open Door campuses in Austin that now require all employees to be vaccinated. In early 2021, when vaccines first became widely available, Jones was hesitant.

“When you first join parts of the military, you are issued various vaccines,” she said. “I was 19, they said I have to, so I have to. But the older I got, the less inclined I was to get vaccines.”

Jones, who has an associate degree and is working on a bachelor’s in early education, said a flu shot that made her very sick once soured her on vaccines. She also felt the Covid vaccine had been developed too fast. And, as a Black woman, she said he has plenty of reasons to mistrust the American medical system. She said she was unmoved by Open Door’s vaccine mandate. Whether or not to get her shots was a decision she preferred to make with her family.

In most cases, centers like the one Jones works at are left to decide for themselves if they will require vaccinations, and risk losing workers who can easily go elsewhere.

Related: The ‘invisible’ front line workers of education

JoJo Halfond, who runs a small home-based child care program in Los Angeles, said she had included Covid vaccination as a requirement in a recent listing for a second assistant. But the one qualified applicant who she thought would be a fit was not vaccinated.

“I’m having trouble finding people who are qualified at all,” she said, “and then trying to find someone who is vaccinated.”

In addition to caring about vaccination for her own safety and that of her family, Halfond said the parents of the kids she cares for would be unwilling to send their children to her without assurance that all staff members were vaccinated. After closing, reopening, then closing again during the pandemic, Halfond said her most recent reopening had to stick, and she needs a second, full-time assistant to operate at full capacity.

“It’s been really hard for child care in general,” she said. “I feel like we deserve better, but I don’t know, I don’t have the solution.”

When she called California’s child care licensing division asking about support for requiring staff vaccinations, she was told there was something “in the pipeline,” but no mandate yet. California does require child care workers to have other vaccines, including influenza, pertussis and measles. Halfond thinks this could just be added to the list.

A few states, including Washington, Connecticut and New Jersey, along with the District of Columbia, have some level of vaccine mandate for child care workers at licensed facilities. Mandates for the U.S. military, health care workers in states like New York and California, and meat plant workers at Tyson Foods, among other groups, have proved effective at raising vaccination rates. Most employees facing mandates have been vaccinated, while only a small percentage have been let go for not complying. Then again, most of the vaccine mandates so far have been for workers who would have a hard time transitioning to other jobs at equal rates of pay.

Related: After mass closures, too little support, post-pandemic child care options will be scarce

Jones, the preschool teacher in Austin, did finally get her shots in August, just weeks before her employer’s mandate went into effect. But she’s not certain she’ll stay in child care forever, despite working on a degree in the field and loving the kids and her current employer.

“I think that what happens is that we are appreciated and congratulated and loved for what we do, but it just does not come out monetary-wise,” she said. “That does not have to do with our directors or admin. They can only do so much.”

“If we really want to protect the workforce, we have to pay them better.”

Walter Gilliam, professor, Yale University

She thinks state and federal governments should fund child care and ensure providers are paid on a par with K-12 teachers.

The Biden administration has proposed raising child care worker wages to at least $15 an hour and to the same level as kindergarten teachers for those with similar qualifications. Pay raises are one of several measures meant to shore up the nation’s rickety child care system, which Democrats hope to fund with $450 billion included in their original social spending plan. While it remains to be seen whether the full amount makes it through Congressional negotiations, the money is critical to saving the child care system and the people who work in it, said Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care at the National Women’s Law Center.

“Fifty years ago, almost exactly, Richard Nixon vetoed universal child care,” Boteach said. “Women and children and providers have been paying the price ever since. We can pass a system that works — or we can continue with the status quo that has been proven to be broken time and time again.”

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