The University of Colorado Children’s Center at Boulder was cited for safety risks, non-compliance with child-to-staff ratios and other violations after an inspection by the Colorado Department of Human Services in June, according to records from the ‘State.
The state’s findings were echoed in a letter sent by CU Children’s Center employees to the campus human resources department, in which staff members raised concerns about children’s safety, staffing levels and the quality of education provided to children in their care.
Teacher Bella Tracey, who has worked at the center for more than 12 years, said problems have gradually worsened since the center reopened last August after it was closed during the pandemic.
“The safety of children is compromised in a huge way because we don’t have staff,” Tracey said.
Tracey at one point described having nine toddlers in her classroom – state regulations limit the ratio to five toddlers for an adult – because another teacher was not yet scheduled to start and the children arriving therefore entered his room.
She reported the violation to state regulators.
“I was like, ‘If something happens to any of these kids, I’m going to jail,’” she said.
CU Children’s Center is hit by a nationwide shortage of qualified early childhood education teachers, CU Boulder spokesperson Melanie Marquez Parra said in a statement.
“Since fall 2020, human resources and campus management have been working with the Children’s Center through a change management process in support of changes at the center related to COVID-19 while also responding to staff shortages. ongoing, ”Parra said.
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The CU Children’s Center currently accommodates 64 children and has 12 staff members. It serves the families of CU Boulder as well as the broader Boulder community, Parra said.
By law, the center is required to have at least one staff member in a room with five infants or toddlers up to 3 years old. As children grow older, state mandatory ratios increase, so more children can be supervised by an adult.
“The center respects the state ratios based on the age of the children and is working on hiring additional staff. Hiring staff for childcare centers continues to be a challenge nationwide, and the center is working to increase salaries with the aim of attracting candidates, ”Parra said in a statement. communicated.
The position classified as “Early Childhood Educator 1” currently has a salary range of $ 31,200 to $ 40,020, Parra said. The center has employed students in the past, but did not do so during the pandemic, and Parra refused to provide demographic information to center employees in order to protect privacy. According to Tracey, the staff are mostly women.
The Department of Social Services inspection at the CU Children’s Center was prompted by a June 9 complaint that there were not enough staff for the number of children. When state officials visited the center on June 18, they found that one class had one extra child, according to the report, so an administrator from the center joined the class to correct the problem.
The state official found 18 other violations during the inspection that were unrelated to the original complaint, according to the report. Violations included splinters of wood on play equipment, sharp metal edges of a waste pipe near a play area, play equipment not complying with regulations, cabinets not attached to the walls, Exterior paint chips and supplements labeled “keep out of reach of children” stored on a hallway shelf where children could access them.
In one case, the state official found that the CU Children’s Center was not meeting federal nutritional requirements for school meals because teachers could not leave their classrooms to obtain milk for the children. .
In a statement, Parra said the CU Children’s Center regularly checks state licenses and works closely with the office to promptly address any violations identified during inspections.
Quality has plummeted for lack of staff
The letter from CU Children’s Center employees to the human resources department at CU Boulder describes how insufficient staffing levels lead to children and teachers being regularly moved from room to room to maintain required ratios, with teachers moving on. long stretches without a break or a chance to go to the bathroom and teachers don’t have time to prepare for lessons.
“The current operating systems that the administration has put in place have created a dangerous environment for children, while decreasing the possibility of bonding with families organically, learning about their cultures and societal norms. and use that information to feed and support our children. and their families, ”the letter reads.
Two years ago, Tracey said, there were still three teachers in a classroom, plus students or volunteers, and at least six substitutes.
Now there is the minimum number of teachers per student, no student workers and a replacement who works as a full-time teacher. You can’t be absent, Tracey says, because there is no one to work for you.
“The quality of care has dropped due to understaffing,” Tracey said. “Even if we try every day, we are not able to provide the same quality of care as two years ago. It frustrates me because I’m a good teacher, and I love children, and I would like to give them everything I can, which I’ve always done, but now it’s just not possible.
The burden on teachers also leads to extreme burnout, said Tracey and former teacher Donna Fayard-Gurung.
Fayard-Gurung started volunteering at the center as a student in 1995 and had been employed since 1998 until two weeks ago when she resigned.
The physical and emotional toll from the job is the reason she left.
“I’m a single mom and my daughter deserves more when I come home at the end of the day,” said Fayard-Gurung, speaking through tears.
Tracey said she requested medical leave because she felt like a changed person. Sometimes she feels that stress, frustration, and overwork is undermining her ability to take care of himself.
“I don’t react the same way. I feel exhausted, emotionally, mentally and physically, because we have a lot more work due to the lack of staff, ”she said.
Fayard-Gurung said she had also been the victim of discriminatory remarks about her age, a disability resulting from head trauma and her Native American heritage. An administrator at the center who was scheduled to attend meetings over the discriminatory remarks began calling these compliance meetings a “powwow,” said Fayard-Gurung, which is a Native American ceremony or social gathering that includes singing and chanting. dance.
The letter sent to human resources was shared with the centre’s administration as well as the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, Parra said.
“The university continues to work with staff to address any outstanding concerns,” she said.
“Children are dollar signs”
The letter written by staff at CU Children’s Center also details the challenges that arise when an adult works alone in a room with five to seven toddlers or 10 to 12 preschoolers for an extended period of time, especially because a child needing special attention means that the teacher’s attention is away from the rest of the children.
In some cases, staff are so understaffed that children are moved to different rooms one or more times a day to maintain required teacher-to-child ratios, according to the letter.
“It’s not in the best interests of the child by the recommended standards. On a single day for a single instance, this is understandable in an emergency. However, as a daily occurrence it is a systemic deficit of the center, ”the letter said.
Staff never know if or when they will have a break, in one case a teacher got wet because she had to wait 45 minutes for a bathroom break, which is not a atypical waiting time, according to the letter.
“Our teachers have suffered from bladder infections, dehydration, and overall physical and mental distress from having to wait to use the toilet,” the letter said.
It’s not uncommon for teachers not to know which children will be in their rooms overnight, Tracey and Fayard-Gurung said, and the schedules that were set for an entire semester change daily or multiple times. per day.
CU leaders work closely with state licensing to ensure safety policies and protocols are followed, Parra said, and ensuring staff-to-child ratios is a priority. The center is also working with a temporary childcare staffing agency and to fill vacancies, Parra said.
“Management of the center will continue to work with staff members and state licenses to prioritize the health, safety and well-being of all at the center,” Parra said in a statement. “The Children’s Center continues to be an important and integral part of CU Boulder, as well as the greater Boulder community.”
The letter from the centre’s staff ends by quoting the centre’s management on the fact that this is the “new normal” and that we need to be flexible.
“… if this is the new normal then we are babysitters and not teachers, we are a poor institution and we have to agree as a group that whatever we strive to be is less than the average, and we’re all going to focus on each day without meeting up. our own expectations, and most likely not meeting parents’ expectations, ”the letter said.
“We will have to accept that we put ourselves, the center and the university at risk of a possible lawsuit or worse because of the poor conditions. This is not what we want for our center, and it is a significant lowering of our standards in all respects, ”the letter continues.
Tracey and Fayard-Gurung said they hope the center will hire more staff, accept fewer students and treat teachers with respect.
“Teachers are leaving because they’re at their breaking point,” Tracey said. “They filled the school with children with minimal staff. Kids are dollar signs, that’s how it feels.