'Staffing nightmare' – Reno-Sparks childcare providers do best to cope in the COVID era

Teachers at Little Bear Preschool and Childcare in Sparks organize books for the children to read on Monday, July 19.

Teachers at Little Bear Preschool and Childcare in Sparks organize books for the children to read on Monday, July 19.
Photo by Kaleb Roedel.

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The lights are off at Little Bear Preschool and Childcare, where nearly 40 children, aged 2 to 5, are sleeping on nap mats.

Characters from The Avengers, Star Wars and Frozen cover the bulk of their blankets. Lullaby music fills the air. In the building’s largest classroom, three teachers sit at tables, sorting and organizing books for the snoozing children to read when they wake.

It’s Monday afternoon — naptime — on July 19 and the Sparks-based preschool is at the midpoint of another day of being at max capacity. Its waiting list is longer than ever, growing by the day.

“There is such demand for childcare,” says Lorrie Casalta, executive director of Little Bear. “People are going back to work, so demand is very, very high. I can’t even get back to all the inquiries that are calling and going to our website and needing childcare.”

Pausing, Casalta leans in and whispers (the kids are napping, after all): “But I don’t have the staff.”

Staff turnover has always been an issue for Casalta — but never quite like this. In fact, her other childcare business, University Preschool and Childcare in downtown Reno, which has capacity for 40 children, has been closed since last November because she can’t hire enough staff.

Before the pandemic, Casalta said she typically had 12 or more teachers to staff both locations. After multiple people quit without notice last year, she’s now down to seven.

“I’ve been trying to hire for months,” said Casalta, noting she needs two more employees before she can reopen University Preschool. “I’ve spent close to $2,000 running employment ads to try to hire, and I’ve never come anywhere near that before.

Lorrie Casalta, executive director of Little Bear Preschool and Childcare in Sparks, sits in her office on Monday, July 19. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


“We’re in this staffing nightmare; in 23 years, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never had such a hard time hiring. And I’ve never had to close because of lack of staff.”


Casalta isn’t alone. Thousands of preschools and daycares across the country have closed temporarily or permanently because of this year’s staffing shortages and last year’s falling enrollments. When COVID-19 hit the U.S. like a tsunami in March 2020, shuttering schools and business and prompting companies to start working remotely, daycares like Casalta’s got caught up in the current.

“We were at max capacity before COVID hit and then, overnight, we were down to under 10 kids,” said Casalta, noting her revenue is down nearly 75% since March 2020. “It got to where we practically had more staff than kiddos.”

Now Little Bear and many others are faced with the opposite problem. A Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis shows the childcare workforce in the U.S. is down 15% compared to pre-pandemic. It’s a significant challenge for the 16% of the overall workforce — or 26.8 million people — who depend on childcare to work.

Locally, 23 childcare providers have permanently closed over the past 16 months, according to data provided to the NNBW by the Washoe County Child Care Licensing department — 196 licensed providers as of June 2021, compared to 219 in February 2020.

“Everybody was full — with a waiting list — before the pandemic,” Casalta said.  “Now, we’ve got centers that have gone out of business, and there are no new centers that have reopened.”


In Northwest Reno, one childcare provider that has kept its doors open throughout the pandemic is Crosswalk Preschool.

Children interact in a classroom at Crosswalk Preschool in Northwest Reno on Friday, July 23. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


Mary Jones, the school’s director, said Crosswalk’s enrollment plummeted from 42 kids a day down to 10 early in the pandemic. Last summer, however, the preschool saw an uptick in demand from a subset of parents who didn’t have the option of working from home during the state shutdown.

“I started getting a lot of kids from parents who are essential workers,” Jones said. “Those people — fire, police, truck drivers, healthcare workers, people who work in grocery stores — were still working and they still need a place for their kids or they can’t work.

“That kind of changed our dynamic a little bit. The majority of our families now are essential workers.”

What’s more, since some daycares quickly closed during the initial state lockdown, Jones said Crosswalk has gained and retained a lot more children simply by staying open.

Some parents, she said, couldn’t afford to wait and see if their child’s daycare provider would reopen.

A year later, even more parents are drawn to daycares like Crosswalk Preschool that have displayed they are willing and able to keep their doors open throughout a global health crisis.

“Because we stayed open, I think it saved our business,” said Jones, who opened Crosswalk Preschool in March 2019. “Now, when parents come to us, they know that we’ve been open the whole time … they don’t have to worry if their center will close again. I tell them, if they don’t close us, we’ll be here.”

Not only that, Jones can tell them that she has plenty of staff on hand. Though Crosswalk saw five teachers leave amid the pandemic, since this spring, the preschool has been back to a full staff of 12 teachers.

Mary Jones, director of Crosswalk Preschool in Northwest Reno, stands inside their main playroom on Friday, July 23. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


As such, Crosswalk is full for the new school year with an enrollment of 42 children.


Still, Jones must routinely turn parents away, she says, because while the pandemic may have caused several businesses to close, it hasn’t slowed the region’s population growth.

With more and more companies and workers fleeing California for Northern Nevada, the demand of parents needing daycare is exceeding the supply of providers.

“If you think it was bad before trying to get your kid into preschool? Well, it’s way worse,” Jones said. “You can’t even call a preschool and find a spot. I know people will call 20-30 preschools and they’re like, ‘I can’t find anything.’”

For Little Bear’s Casalta, the lack of available childcare providers and struggle to pay competitive wages is not only a byproduct of the pandemic — it speaks to a lack of funding for the childcare industry.

The pandemic, she feels, finally shined a spotlight on the longstanding issue. After all, the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed in March pours nearly $50 billion into the childcare sector to help centers cope with revenue shortfalls, increased costs and, for some, staff shortages.

Nevada is estimated to receive more than $461 million from the act, according to an analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Casalta said she recently found out her two preschools will receive a combined stipend of roughly $98,000, which she said will “keep her in business for this next year.”

“There was nothing like that during the Great Recession,” she continued. “The difference between the Great Recession and this time is that somebody realized how important childcare is to not only children and working families, but to our country as a whole.”


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