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Tewksbury day care closure shows a system on the brink

Patti MacGillivray, the owner of Pattikakes' day care, got a hug from her granddaughter, Anya Leavitt, who went to her grandmother's day care. MacGillivray shut down the business after 20 years due to rising costs, staffing shortages, and mounting stress.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

For Lindsey Schofield’s daughters, Pattikakes’ was “a magical place.” The girls could run through fields, walk in the woods, and picnic with horses on the child care center’s grounds. Pattikakes’ also happened to be located just across the parking lot from the building where Schofield works as a music therapist for the Department of Mental Health, on the campus of Tewksbury Hospital.

But at the end of October, Pattikakes’ closed its doors. After 20 years in business, having survived the COVID shutdown and the stringent safety protocols that followed, the beloved day care was beset by surging costs, plummeting revenues, and chronic staffing shortages. Owner Patti MacGillivray, 68, was working 60 hours a week covering for absent teachers, sanitizing surfaces, and doing paperwork on nights and weekends. She had raised tuition after the shutdown and knew many families couldn’t afford another rate hike, which meant she couldn’t afford to increase wages beyond $22 an hour, or offer health insurance, to attract more teachers.

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“It just got to be too much,” MacGillivray said.

The challenges MacGillivray faced are severely stressing a sector that was already in crisis when the pandemic hit, shining a harsh light on a dysfunctional system that provides a crucial lifeline for working parents. The cost for families is astronomical, and workers’ wages are abysmal, especially in an expensive state like Massachusetts.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state has had a net loss of more than 500 centers and home-based day cares, a reduction of nearly 2,300 licensed slots. Federal and state funds have helped stop the bleeding, but the situation remains dire. About $574 million in monthly grants have been awarded to Massachusetts providers since July 2021, and if they expire in the spring, as scheduled, 751 providers said they would have to close their doors, according to a September survey by the Department of Early Education and Child Care, taking away more than 15,000 slots in a system already hampered by long wait lists. More than half of the 6,010 providers surveyed said they would be forced to increase tuition and reduce wages if the grants are eliminated.

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At home-based day cares, more than half the owners reported earning less than $30,000 a year, after expenses, with hundreds operating at a loss or breaking even.

Governor Maura Healey addressed the situation in her inaugural speech, calling for Massachusetts to become “the first state to solve the child care crisis.” Healey has endorsed a bill backed by the Common Start Coalition — a statewide partnership of organizations, educators, and advocates pushing to make child care more accessible and affordable — that would provide public funding directly to providers, allowing them to increase early educator pay; expand access to subsidies to more families; and increase the subsidy reimbursement rate paid to providers. House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka both highlighted their commitment to improving early education and care in speeches at the start of the legislative session.

“The early education and child care market is profoundly broken,” said Mark Reilly, vice president of policy and government relations at Jumpstart, a national early education training organization based in Boston. “Providers are in an impossible position. On one hand they can’t charge more because their families are struggling to make ends meet. And on the other hand, without more resources, they can’t afford to raise compensation to attract and retain their staff.”

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In Tewksbury, the state hospital grounds have hosted a child care center for more than a century, MacGillivray said. Before the pandemic, Pattikakes’ looked after 52 kids, providing pancakes and French toast for breakfast, soup and sandwiches for lunch, along with snacks, diaper wipes, and extra sippy cups when kids showed up without them. But last year, as it became more difficult to hire staff, the center was down three teachers and could only handle 32 kids.

“We had parents calling daily: ‘Do you have openings, do you have openings, do you have openings?’ ” MacGillivray said. “We had space, we just didn’t have staffing.”

Pattikakes', a day care in Tewksbury for two decades, has shut down. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

MacGillivray didn’t think she was eligible for the monthly state grants, but it’s unclear how much they would have helped. The number of larger child care centers that have been unable to operate at full capacity due to worker shortages increased from 28 to 35 percent since the spring, despite the grants, according to the state survey.

Nearly a third of the state’s early educator positions turned over in the past year, according to state data, and nearly half the providers reported those who left abandoned the profession altogether. In all, nearly 4,000 positions are open at larger child care centers statewide.

At the heart of the problem is teacher pay, said Amanda Storth of the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children. They’re so dedicated, and have put up with low wages for such a long time, it’s extraordinary to see so many of them leaving now, she said. And a boost of around $2 an hour on average in a little over a year hasn’t been enough to stem the tide.

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“For educators to be forced out, that is truly a canary in a coal mine,” Storth said.

MacGillivray’s daughter, Ellen Leavitt, who taught at the center for 20 years, loved her career at Pattikakes’ and planned to retire from there. She would spend a week focused on the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty”: painting eggs, dropping them out a second-story window, creating protective cushions to try to keep the eggs from cracking. At the goodbye party, Leavitt said, a former student, now in his 20s, told the staff, “I am who I am because of you.”

But now Leavitt is planning to exit the field, convinced she won’t find another place that will allow her the same freedoms.

For many teachers, it comes down to money. Jayleese Le Blanc, 30, spent 12 years in early education, most recently in East Boston, and is licensed as a director. But then she and her husband had a second daughter and bought a home in Wareham, and she planned to find work nearby. But with local salaries for preschool teachers hovering around $35,000 a year before taxes, paying for day care for her baby would have eaten up all her wages. So she opted to stay home instead.

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This is a workforce that isn’t valued by society, said Reilly of Jumpstart, largely because the labor force is largely made up of women of color.

“Both gender and race have played a major role in why our country underappreciates the contributions of our early educator workforce,” he said.

Higher wages would also mean higher quality care, with providers able to bring in teachers with more experience and advanced credentials. But the only way to do that is to raise tuition beyond what most families can pay, said Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, copresident of the Boston child care nonprofit Neighborhood Villages. In this system, keeping care even semi-affordable means keeping wages low.

Patti MacGillivray, the owner of Pattikakes' daycare, gets a hug from her granddaughter, Anya Leavitt, who went to her grandmother's daycare. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Massachusetts has one of the highest child care costs in the nation, according to the Economic Policy Institute, with infant care averaging more than $20,000 a year. Teacher wages at larger child care centers average around $21 an hour, statewide.

“There’s no mechanism in this broken market in which a raise in operating costs can be offset with anything but tuition increases,” she said.

The answer, advocates say, is treating early education like K-12 education — a publicly funded program that isn’t subject to the whims of the marketplace. That’s how it works in many other countries that top UNICEF’S child care rankings. (Among wealthy nations, the United States ranks 40th out of 41). The United States contributes an average of $500 a year for a toddler’s care, compared to $14,000 provided by other rich countries, according to a New York Times analysis.

During World War II, money was allocated for state-run nurseries to allow mothers to enter the workforce. But the funding dried up, and a 1971 bill that would have created a network of federally funded child care centers was vetoed by President Nixon, who compared the system to communism. Last year, proposals to extend pandemic-era child tax credits and provide other supports were stripped out of the Build Back Better act.

The state of Massachusetts invested a record $1.3 billion in child care in fiscal year 2023, but 16,000 children are still on the wait list for subsidized care, according to a new Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation report. Inadequate access to affordable child care costs the state around $2.7 billion a year in lost earnings for employees and $812 million for employers, the report found.

When Schofield found out in September that Pattikakes’ was closing, she compiled a list of 50 day cares between Tewksbury and Dedham, where she lives. She found no openings for her 1 1/2-year old, and only a few for her 4 1/2-year old, but the costs were too high (up to double what she was paying), the commute was too long, or the hours weren’t long enough.

Wait lists were long, or frozen — and often cost money, as much as $200 a pop, Schofield found. Finally, she found a spot for both girls in North Reading. It costs nearly $750 more a month than Pattikakes’, with no food provided, forcing the family to take $200-$400 out of their home equity loan every month, on top of the overtime shifts her husband already works as a groundskeeper at Boston College to pay for child care.

MacGillivray has spent the last few months closing out the books and selling off equipment. She can’t afford to stop working, and she misses the kids, so she’s considering becoming a substitute preschool teacher. She’s also thinking of volunteering to rock babies at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“I love working with kids,” she said. “I love discovering what they’re discovering, seeing what they’re finding. ... It’s a new beginning every day.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.