Increased staffing shortages following COVID-19 classroom closures are leading some Head Start programs to once again shutter their doors — this time, permanently.
"We're facing a major workforce crisis," said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association. "We don't have the qualified staff that are able to keep up with the amount of children that we would want to be serving."
According to a survey of more than 900 NHSA members released in May, an overwhelming 85% of respondents indicated staff turnover is higher than in a typical year, and nearly a third of staff positions are currently unfilled. The top reason for turnover: low compensation.
In many places, Head Start staff are living in poverty, according to Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start.
In West Virginia, where more than 90% of Head Start teachers had a bachelor's degree as of 2018, the starting pay is often minimum wage, or $8.75 an hour. By contrast, job listings for Walmart in West Virginia show starting salaries ranging from $13 to $15 an hour.
"We can't hire anybody. Nobody's even applying for jobs," said Lori Milam, executive director of the West Virginia Head Start Association. "We can't out-pay Walmart and the gas station down the street and even the fast food restaurant."
Other Head Start leaders also report losing both current and prospective staff to neighboring outlets like Sheetz, Burger King, Target and Arby's. In other cases, credentialed and trained Head Start staff are moving on to jobs in local K-12 school systems which, despite having teacher pay problems of their own, still pay more than Head Start.
Managerial staff step in
While teacher shortages and low compensation have been a years-long problem and not one unique to the pandemic, the situation has been exacerbated by a tight labor market and tough working conditions as students come in with more behavioral problems.
"It's a little bit like Hurricane Katrina," Ryan said about the pandemic's impact on Head Start. "It also highlighted the vast inequalities, how terrible we're paying people, the lack of resources, the underinvestment in young children, from both state and federal government and local governments."
Head Start staff turnover has led to classrooms closing temporarily and even permanently in many places. According to the NHSA survey, 90% of respondents’ programs have closed classrooms temporarily or for good due to lack of personnel.
Cassrooms that stay open are still struggling, with management staff stepping in to monitor buses, lead classrooms or cook. Staff sometimes work more than one job, affecting performance and driving down morale, Milam said. And where programs are able to hire new staff, they have less experience and training, Ryan said.
Children added to waitlists as classrooms close
As a result of turnover and classroom closures, Head Start programs are being compelled to turn away children they would normally serve, instead adding them to lengthening waitlists, directors said.
The reduction in available slots is leading to noticeable declines in enrollment numbers.
The latest data available in Washington state, for example, shows a 29% decline in Head Start enrollment from 17,242 students in 2019 to 12,255 in 2021. Enrollment numbers for 2022 are expected to plunge even lower, according to predictions.
Sheridan and state program directors say programs are unable to serve children just when they need the most support post-pandemic. In addition, waitlisting children is disproportionately impacting low-income students — the population Head Start aims to serve.
In Washington state, Ryan said closures are also disproportionately affecting Black, Hispanic and immigrant children, who are more likely to attend Head Start than other preschool programs.
"It's a shame we work with the most disadvantaged, yet we're the most disadvantaged in pay and salaries of anybody in the nation," Milam said.
Multiple Head Start directors warned these disparities will eventually reach the K-12 system, impacting school readiness and long-term academic achievement.
Additional federal support sought
Advocates are asking the federal government, which funds Head Start, for help.
"I'm skeptical if they quite realize what we're facing," Milam said.
Last October, a proposal included in the Build Back Better Act to increase compensation for Head Start and Early Head Start staff by $15 billion over the course of six years did not make it to President Joe Biden's desk. Now, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) are working on an overhauled framework that would include $3 billion less, but still a total of $12 billion, over six years for Head Start wages.
Murray said in a statement that the proposal is about "supporting the child care workforce," among other efforts.
Republican lawmakers have also historically supported the Head Start program, although they have at times proposed smaller and more incremental increases in Head Start spending than have Democrats.
"I think it has been exciting that we still have bipartisan support, and we have seen small increases over the years," Sheridan said. "But it's really disheartening when Head Start is not seen as a priority that we need to invest in."