A letter from New Hampshire and Maine's U.S. Senators calling on the Department of Defense to provide additional resources for civilian parents whose children are no longer able to use the child care center at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard shines a light on the problems faced by all childcare providers.

Staffing shortages at the shipyard's childcare facility have forced the Navy to enforce supplanting rules that give priority to the children of enlisted families. It was implemented on Sept. 1, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and re-implemented as school age care programs return to normal.

This policy left many parents who work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the Kittery-Portsmouth border on their own for child care.

New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, along with Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King signed a letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks asking for help for those families.

"While we understand the childcare capacity issues DoD is facing, it is simply unacceptable to displace families from DoD child care centers without facilitating a seamless and equitable transition of care to an alternative center," the senators wrote. "Given the significant resources the Department has at its disposal and proactive stance to submit reprogramming requests to the Congress for mid-year ‘fact of life’ issues, we urge the Department to provide additional resources for childcare for Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employees as well as other affected childcare centers."

Exterior of a child care center at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Exterior of a child care center at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (US Navy)
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Staffing an Issue for the Child Care Business

The same staffing issue at the shipyard facility exists for many Seacoast providers according to Early Learning N.H. Executive Director Jackie Cowell, who has been in the child care world since 1990. She has never had so much worry for her industry than now, but she also has never had so much hope that things could potentially be different.

"Every single industry is having trouble finding stable, qualified staff. Child care is no different," Cowell told Seacoast Current. "But what is different, though, is that when child care can't find staffing classrooms close down and there's less and less child care available, it ends up affecting every other industry."

Like other industries, to attract and keep workers, child care centers have raised the wages of their workers. But unlike other businesses, raising rates to cover their increased costs has a price.

"In child care, the number one place they're getting their funding from is other parents. If they raise their rates to the point where they would be competitive in staffing, the parents couldn't afford it. You'd be freezing out a lot of working parents. It's a real big conundrum," Cowell said.

One solution being tested to help child care centers control their costs is to combine when making purchases to increase their buying power. Another is the sharing of staff.

Even with the Navy's supplanting rules creating a strain for shipyard parents and child care centers, Cowell had praise for the military's investment in the child care for military personnel.

"They do it for two main reasons. It supports their current workforce but they're also investing in their future workforce. Studies show that children of military end up more likely to join the military," Cowell said.

Exterior of the child care center at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Exterior of the child care center at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (US Navy)
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Burnout vs. Passion

Burnout from the pandemic has played a role, but is often eclipsed by the calling that many in the education field have.

"Pandemic burnout been very tough with the worry about COVID and making sure everyone's safe, when they go home making sure their families are safe. That's been an extra, extra worry, Conwell said. "But even after COVID is no longer the worry it is, now a lot of very talented people would stay if they could afford to stay there. Even though there's no remote option they love the work and they're good at it."

Conwell has hope the situation will straighten out eventually, but does not believe it will be a return to a pre-pandemic situation.

"It has always been a very, very fragile system when you're so dependent on working families ability to pay for childcare," Conwell said. "When I see things straightening out, it has to be with a diverse amount of that isn't so dependent on parents ability to pay. Businesses invest because it helps them. Communities, state, federal, just not so dependent on the parents."

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNH

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