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 child safety, staffing levels and the quality of education provided to the children in their care.
Teacher Bella Tracey, who has worked at the center for more than 12 years, said problems have been getting progressively worse since the center reopened last August after being closed during the pandemic.
“The safety of the children is compromised in a huge way because we have no staff,” Tracey said.
Tracey described at one point having nine toddlers in her classroom — state regulations limit the ratio to five toddlers per one adult — because another teacher wasn’t scheduled to start yet and so arriving children came into her room.
She called the violation in to state regulators.
“I thought to myself, ‘If something happens to one of these children, I’m going to jail,’” she said.
The CU Children’s Center is being impacted by a nationwide shortage of qualified early childhood education teachers, CU Boulder spokesperson Melanie Marquez Parra said in a statement.
“Since the fall of 2020, Human Resources and campus leadership have been working with the Children’s Center through a change management process in support of changes occurring in the center related to COVID-19 while also responding to ongoing staffing shortages,” Parra said.
State official found safety violations
The CU Children’s Center currently enrolls 64 children and has 12 staff members. It serves families at 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 get older, the mandated state ratios increase so more children can be supervised by one adult.
“The center meets state ratios according to the ages of children and is working on hiring additional staff. Hiring staff for early childhood centers continues to be a challenge nationally, and the center is working to increase pay in an effort to attract candidates,” Parra said in a statement.
The position classified as “Early Childhood Educator 1” currently has a salary range of $31,200 to $40,020, Parra said. The center has previously employed student workers, but has not done so during the pandemic, and Parra declined to provide demographic information for the center’s employees to protect privacy. According to Tracey, the staff is mostly women.
The Department of Human Services inspection at the CU Children’s Center was prompted by a June 9 complaint of there not being enough staff members for the number of children. When state officials visited the center on June 18, they found that one classroom had one too many toddlers, according to the report, so a center administrator joined the classroom to correct the problem.
The state official found 18 other violations during the inspection that were unrelated to the initial complaint, according to the report. The violations included splintering wood on play equipment, sharp metal edges of a drainpipe near a playground, play equipment not meeting regulations, cabinets not affixed to walls, chipping exterior paint and supplements labeled “keep out of reach of children” stored on a hallway shelf where children could access them.
In one instance, the state official found that the CU Children’s Center was not complying with federal nutrition requirements for school meals because teachers could not leave their classrooms to get milk for children.
In a statement, Parra said the CU Children’s Center regularly consults with state licensing and works closely with the office to quickly address any violations identified during inspections.
Quality plunged due to lack of staff
The letter from CU Children’s Center employees to CU Boulder’s human resources department outlines how inadequate staffing levels lead to children and teachers regularly being moved from room to room to maintain the required ratios, teachers going long periods without a break or a chance to go to the bathroom and teachers not being given time to prepare lessons.
“The current operating systems the administration has implemented have created an unsafe environment for the children, while also diminishing the opportunity to bond with the families in an organic way, learn about their cultures and societal norms and utilize that information to nurture and support our children and their families,” the letter states.
Two years ago, Tracey said, there were always three teachers in a classroom, plus student workers or volunteers and at least six substitutes.
Now there is the bare minimum number of teachers per student, no student workers and one substitute who is working as a full-time teacher. It’s not possible to take time off, Tracey said, because there’s no one to work for you.
“The quality of care went plunging down because of lack of staff,” Tracey said. “As much as we were trying every day, we aren’t capable of providing the same quality of care as we were two years ago. That frustrates me because I’m a good teacher, and I love the kids, and I would like to give them all I can, which I always have done, but now it’s just not possible.”
The burden on teachers is also leading to extreme burnout, said Tracey and former teacher Donna Fayard-Gurung.
Fayard-Gurung began volunteering at the center as a student in 1995 and had been an employee since 1998 until two weeks ago, when she quit.
The physical and emotional toll of the job is why she left.
“I’m a single mom, and my daughter deserves more when I get home at the end of the day,” Fayard-Gurung said, speaking through tears.
Tracey said she has applied for medical leave because she feels like a changed person. At times she feels like the stress, frustration and overwork saps her of her ability to care.
“I don’t react the same. I feel worn out, emotionally and mentally and physically, because we carry so much more work because of lack of staff,” she said.
Fayard-Gurung said she has also experienced discriminatory remarks about her age, a disability resulting from a traumatic brain injury and her Native American heritage. A center administrator who was required to attend meetings about the discriminatory remarks began referring to those compliance meetings as “powwows,” Fayard-Gurung said, which is a Native American ceremony or social gathering that includes singing and dancing.
The letter sent to human resources was shared with the center’s administration as well as the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, Parra said.
“The university continues to work with staff to address any ongoing concerns,” she said.
‘The children are dollar signs’
The letter written by CU Children’s Center staff also details challenges that occur when one adult works in a room alone with five to seven toddlers or 10 to 12 preschoolers for an extended period of time, particularly because one child needing special attention means the teacher’s attention is drawn away from the rest of the children.
In some instances, staffing is so inadequate that children are moved to different rooms one or more times per day to maintain required teacher-to-child ratios, according to the letter.
“This is not in the best interest of the child by any recommended set of standards. On a single day for a single instance, this is understandable in an emergency. However, as a daily occurrence, it speaks to a systemic center deficit,” the letter states.
Staff members never know if or when they will get a break, in one case causing a teacher to wet herself because she was made to wait 45 minutes for a bathroom break, which is not an atypical wait time, according to the letter.
“Our teachers have already experienced bladder infections, dehydration and overall physical and mental distress from being made to wait to use the bathroom,” the letter states.
It’s not uncommon for teachers to not know which children will be in their room from one day to the next, Tracey and Fayard-Gurung said, and schedules that used to be set for an entire semester change daily or several times a day.
CU leaders are working closely with state licensing to ensure safety policies and protocols are met, according to Parra, and ensuring staff-to-child ratios is a priority. The center is also working with a temporary child care staffing agency and to fill open positions, Parra said.
“The center’s leadership will continue to work with staff members and state licensure to prioritize the health, safety and well-being of everyone 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 center staff concludes by quoting center leadership about this being the “new normal” and needing to be flexible.
“… if this is the new normal then we are babysitters and not teachers, we are a subpar institution and we must agree as a group that subpar is all we strive to be, and we will all just focus on getting through each day not meeting our own expectations, and quite likely not meeting parent expectations,” the letter states.
“We will have to accept that we put ourselves, the center and the university at risk of a potential lawsuit or worse because of the subpar conditions. This is not what we want for our center, and it is a significant lowering of our standards in every way,” 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 have packed the school full of children with minimal staff. The children are dollar signs, that’s how it feels.”