Eagle County Schools to reopen two early childhood classrooms as staffing challenges lessen
However, with vacancies remaining and federal Head Start vaccine requirements looming, challenges remain
While hiring challenges have created impacts across many of Eagle County Schools’ departments and buildings, its early childhood education programs were some of the hardest hit.
At the start of the year, the district’s early childhood department had 16 vacancies. And due to state-mandated staffing requirements, this meant the district was unable to open one infant classroom, two preschool classrooms and its extended day program at Homestake Peak.
However, recently, the district has been able to hire seven new staff members to its programs. As a result, it will be able to reopen one infant classroom and one preschool classroom in January.
“I do want to thank you all for the market adjustment because we went from 16 vacancies down to nine, so it has made an impact and hopefully what you just did will have future impact across our entire district, but we have already seen the positive effects of additional compensation,” said Shelley Smith, the director of early childhood education for Eagle County Schools, during a presentation at the Dec. 8 school board meeting.
In this statement, Smith was referring to both a board-approved adjustment in October as well as a raise approved just before her presentation to the board last Wednesday. In October, the school board approved hiring incentives for pre-K paraprofessionals as well as an increase in the hourly wage for its pre-K paraprofessionals.
In addition to the raises approved at the Dec. 8 meeting for all staff, Smith noted that recent changes to the state’s licensing rules could also help improve its future hiring situation. Smith said that these licensing requirements have historically been “burdensome” for early childhood, but that effective Dec. 1, the state reduced the rules on some license requirements, especially for school districts. She said these changes would give them more “flexibility” with hiring in the future.
Smith added that other positive of the last semester was the success of a pilot program with Colorado Mountain College, which allowed its early childhood employees to earn certifications during work hours. This program can be used as both a recruiting and retaining strategy for the department. In the first semester, the district had five employees complete the program and anticipates having 12 enrolled for the next term.
“We’re working toward getting them a certification so they can move up into the different positions but not have them have to work all day, go home, having children, have to leave them and go to school,” Smith said.
Even with these changes and progress, “staffing remains a challenge,” Smith said.
The nine remaining vacancies mean that that the district still cannot open one preschool class nor can it offer its extended day service at Homestake Peak.
“Not all of our communities are being equally served, which is a challenge,” she said.
Smith also noted later in her presentation that the early childhood department is also facing increased needs downvalley and a lack of not only staff, but space to serve these needs.
“The Gypsum schools are growing in their enrollment and we take classrooms in those schools. We have the highest need for those preschool spots downvalley at the same time those schools are needing additional space to serve kindergarten, first, second third,” Smith said, adding that these programs serve Eagle and Dotsero in addition to Gypsum.
Currently, downvalley, the district has 92 individuals on its preschool waitlist, 51 on its toddler and 51 on its infant waitlist. This is compared to its waitlists up valley that have 55 on the preschool waitlist, 95 on the toddler list and 64 on its infants list.
Head Start Vaccine Requirements
While Eagle County Schools has made it clear it has no plans to implement vaccine requirements for its staff, the early childhood program does have an exception, which has the potential to exacerbate its existing hiring challenges.
Locally, Eagle County Schools is the grantee of the federal-funded Head Start program. Head Start Services are provided in 19 classrooms through programs at Eagle Valley Preschool, the Edwards Early Learning Center, Gypsum Elementary, Homestake Peak Preschool and Red Hill Elementary.
In September, President Biden announced that all Head Start employees must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 31, 2022.
“We are, as federal-direct employees that get funding directly from the federal government, we are required to have vaccinations for anybody that has close contact with children being served as Head Start,” Smith said. “That has been a challenge, but thus far it’s fairly minimal because we have 33 classrooms, and only 19 of them are Head Start. So, there’s about seven staff that didn’t feel comfortable at this point getting vaccinated.”
With this requirement, Smith said the early childhood department was working closely with the district’s human resources department to minimize the effects on staff.
“Unfortunately, part of the rules says that anybody that has direct contact serving children with Head Start has to be (vaccinated), but I think we’re going to be able to work around and minimize who is (effected), having those that are vaccinated provide those services, so we aren’t changing anybody’s position,” she said.
Smith added that she hopes the federal Office of Head Start will “rescind it or pull it from their standards,” because, “we’re really trying to keep all the staff.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.