Karen Schaefer, the owner of Treehouse Day Care and Preschool, recently sat in a classroom empty of students but containing a large binder of rules and regulations that her business operates under.
The classroom is one of two closed because Schaefer does not have the personnel she needs to keep them open. Another classroom is scheduled to close at the end of the month, leaving 20 students without day care if Schaefer can’t find qualified personnel.
On Monday, she is closing one of her infant rooms, leaving eight babies without a place to go and six families seeking alternative day care.
“It’s hard to decide which babies to keep,” said Schaefer, who is also the director of the school. “Some families have kept kids here for 10 years.”
Schaefer earned her child care degree from Lake Land College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
The Treehouse Day Care and Preschool, Inc. must adhere to strict guidelines set forth by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA).
Treehouse Day Care has two locations: One south of Effingham on Hoffman Drive employs 17 staff members and is licensed for 115 children; another located north of Effingham on Network Centre Drive, with 19 staff members and licensed for 190 children.
Schaefer said she started noticing the child care crisis develop over the past three years and thinks 2019 was one of the worst years so far.
“A lot of the home day cares just gave up,” Schaefer said. “And we have more rules and regulations home day cares do not have.”
She’s having a hard time finding people to join her staff and must close classrooms.
“Some think child care is just babysitting,” Schaefer said. “And it’s not, child care is working and teaching the kids and showing them how to do things.”
“We raised everybody’s pay,” Schaefer said. “We are paying above the minimum wage.”
She said job seekers can find a better hourly wage at business where a higher education isn’t needed.
“Right now we are barely making our overhead,” Schaefer added.
Schaefer said most of the children she keeps are private pay, which means parents pay for services by themselves without assistance.
Schaefer has been carefully studying her bottom line to determine how much her rates will have to be raised.
“We really want it to be fair to the parents,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer said since a majority of her kids are privately supported by their parents they are able to adjust their rates.
“We have just so many parents trying to find child care,” Schaefer said. “We have to turn away at least five families a day.”
“Our problem is with staff leaving and unable to find replacements, we can’t man the rooms and can’t call the kids in,” Schaefer said.
She said her day care must meet state standards when it comes to hiring staff for her two facilities.
“And that is why we are having trouble in the day care field,” Schaefer said. “And nobody is wanting to go to college for this field.”
Schaefer said when she started in day care they were able to hire an aide that was 5 years older than the oldest child in the class. She said at one time they could hire high school kids to work after school.
“The aides now have to be 19 and have a high school diploma,” Schaefer said. “If you hire somebody that is under 19 they can’t be counted as an aide or a part of the ratio. They just have to be extra.”
“If they would change that little thing alone it would make a big difference,” Schaefer said about the 19-year-old age requirement.
Schaefer said there are state required ratios of teachers to children they must meet: Babies: one teacher to 4; Toddlers 15 months and up: one teacher to 5, Two-year-old: one teacher to 8; Three, 4 and 5-year-old: One teacher to 10; and school age: one teacher to 20 children.
If Schaefer does not have enough personnel to satisfy the teacher to child ratio requirements set by the state, she must close a classroom.
“I don’t think lowering the ratios is the answer,” Schaefer said. “That is a safety issue.”
“There always has to be a teacher in the room,” Schaefer added. “And if your ratio goes over the limit you have to have an aide in the room with them.”
She said before new rules were put in place high school students who were considering a career in teaching could work hands-on and find out whether or not teaching was the career path they wanted to continue to pursue.
“If they would lower the age limit of 19-year-old to 17 or 18 for aides, that would help,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer said teaching requirements can also be a factor.
“Our teachers are required to have an associate’s degree,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer said public schools are also having problems keeping and finding faculty to fill vacant positions. She said requirements for a substitute teachers in public schools were lowered from having a bachelor degree to only needing an associates degree.
“Several of our teachers went to the school district,” Schaefer said.
She said with the state rules they have to have certified food handlers, a mandated abuse reporter, training in first aid, safety and CPR in addition to 5 online courses. She said on top of that there are health department regulations and local fire department regulations her day care facilities have to abide by.
“That’s just the requirements to work here,” Schaefer said. “And you have to be able to pass a background check which is hard to get now days.”
Schaefer said any past infraction could disqualify a candidate from holding a job in a day care facility. She also said there are some paid tests that must be paid by the day care provider to include a radon test and lead testing of all water facets.
“That adds up to about $5,000 between the two centers,” Schaefer said. “That’s just extra expense on top of everything else.”
She said she hopes the state will step in and give day care centers crisis standards.
“We’ve been working on that for at least two years,” Schaefer said. “Advocates from three different child care groups have been lobbying in Springfield.”
Schaefer said right now only a director can open and her day care facilities. The directors open the facility each day and close at the end of the day. She said it would be nice if they could reduce the requirement to allow teachers to open.
“We have been here over 15 years and I have a teacher working today who has here before we got here and has a bachelor’s degree.” Schaefer said. “And she is not allowed to open.”
“We are lucky,” Schaefer said. “We have 6 qualified directors.”
She said directors are not allowed to be in a classroom to cover a 5-minute bathroom break, run an errand or lunch period for a teacher. There always has to be a teacher in a room.
“That’s because we are larger than 50 kids and the director has to be out of the room,” Schaefer said. “If we had under 50 kids I would be able to go into a room.”
“You have to hire “floating substitutes” to cover those things,” Schaefer said. “If you can’t find staff to manage a room, how do you find staff substitutes to cover only a few hours.”
Schaefer said INCCRRA sets standards even higher training standards.
“They have standards over and above the training I have discussed,” Schaefer said. “In one year I did over 140 hours of training to meet their standards.”
She said there is a binder book of standards for every age group that includes among several other things how many pictures can be displayed on classroom walls as well as requirements for what content can appear in each picture.
Wednesday, Jan. 15 the Treehouse Too day care center is holding open interviews to fill 3 teachers aide positions, two child care teachers and one cook.
Treehouse too is located at 1207 Network Center Drive, Suite One across from Lake Land College Kluthe Center for Higher Education & Technology in Effingham.
Editor’s Note: Officials say there’s a critical shortage of child care resources in Effingham County. One recent study said that through June of 2019, there were 2,292 children in Effingham County under the age of 5 and only 1,318 child care spots are available. This story is part of an ongoing Effingham Daily News series on the topic.