CARIBOU, Maine — Jordyn Rossignol, who owns Miss Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool in Caribou, has gone through 23 different teachers since the beginning of the pandemic.
Although the staff are almost back to previous levels, they are working fewer hours by their own choice. That, coupled with lack of public funding subsidy, is endangering the availability of child care in Aroostook and other counties, Rossignol said.
The story of her day care’s struggles have gone national, appearing on the Washington D.C.-based publication The Hill and the National Public Radio program This American Life. She also testified to the Maine Legislature in May, and recently attended a meeting in the Fort Fairfield to talk about the lack of child care in the town.
Rossignol’s preschool isn’t the only one facing staffing and funding issues. In Houlton, several private day care facilities have shuttered within the last two years, and Old Town Recreation in Penobscot County is closing its child care programs as well.
Jacqueline Stevens, the owner and director of the Planet Recess Educational Center in Presque Isle, said that when the pandemic hit, the number of her staff also decreased, and she had a hard time finding replacements.
“When the pandemic first started, people got scared,” Stevens said. “We were pretty much always looking for staff.” She said they went from 18 staff members to around 10, although they have managed to add back staff since.
At the Little Eagles Preschool and Daycare in Houlton, affiliated with Greater Houlton Christian Academy, director Becky Nadeau says they’ve been able to maintain staff, but recruiting newer members has proven to be a challenge.
“We don’t have a high turnover, but it is harder to recruit staff,” she said. “This is merely speculation, but I surmise it has to be about making more money.”
Rossignol said that child care workers at private facilities pay close to minimum wage, from $12 to $15 an hour, and since the only source of income is tuition from parents, she cannot raise wages without increasing tuition.
Also, strict regulations that providers must follow often lead to burnout among staff.
“The whole child care sector is broken,” Rossignol said. “Nothing works. Not a single part of it works. There’s zero public investment. It’s hard to do this job if you’re making money. It’s really hard to do this job when you’re not making any money at all.”
To help improve conditions for a service that parents desperately need, Rossignol has been advocating for greater public funding for day care centers. Though she received Payroll Protection Program loans during the pandemic to help out with the day care, she compared the loans to being “like a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”
One thing Rossignol says would help improve conditions is universal pre-k, an idea that has been supported by several politicians in Congress, as well as by President Joe Biden. The plan for universal pre-K is included in the proposed $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which needs to be passed by a divided U.S. Senate before it can be approved by the House and signed by the president.
“This will save our field,” Rossignol said of universal pre-K. “And if that doesn’t get passed, this fall going into winter is going to be a big hit for us because that’s almost the only way we’re going to save our field.”
Though Rossignol said her previous advocacy has led to some senators, such as Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, sending personal messages of support, she hopes to still catch the attention of Maine’s senator and Caribou native Susan Collins, whose Republican party is staunchly opposed to the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill. Collins voted in favor of a $1 trillion infrastructure deal which does not include universal pre-K, but against the budget resolution for the $3.5 trillion deal.
“She doesn’t believe child care is part of infrastructure,” Rossignol said. “I would love the opportunity to show her why it is.”
Aroostook County isn’t the only area of the state having issues with child care. In Penobscot County, Old Town Recreation’s child care programs will be closed by the end of August, director Adam Mahaney said.
The organization has struggled to recruit and retain staff throughout the pandemic and is facing a number of financial burdens, including $20,000 in required building repairs and delays in reimbursements from the state.
“We never shut down child care before because it was something we could offer,” Mahaney said. “But it’s to the point now where with staffing and the building modifications that would have to take place — we have to look at the bigger picture.”
Reporters Melissa Lizotte and Sawyer Loftus contributed to this report.