As dad and mom return to work, baby care suppliers need a extra sustainable mannequin

Sitka’s childcare system was in crisis long before the pandemic hit and changed everything radically. Now that Alaska’s vaccination rates are improving and more parents are back to work, they may run out of space to send their children. (KCAW / Katherine Rose)

Last year, KCAW sat down with parents and childcare providers to discuss the lack of childcare in Sitka. They said childcare is incredibly expensive, there aren’t many local options for working parents, and the centers cannot afford to pay teachers competitively due to high overheads, so staff turnover is high.

That was just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic rocked childcare across the country.

“I think it was a little scary at first because you weren’t sure where the money was going to come from,” Lolly Miller said in an interview last month. She heads the Sheldon Jackson Child Care Center. She said at the start of the pandemic, when health officials forced centers to close, they didn’t know if they would make it.

“There’s not a lot of money to pay for childcare,” she said. “For some institutions, it’s kind of month-to-month. There isn’t a lot of extra money sitting around to carry you for very long. That part was scary, you know, not knowing if we’d have enough money to keep the doors open. “

But at some point came some money. Grants and temporary relief funds, including part of the city’s CARES Act funding, helped keep them afloat during the pandemic.

But now Miller runs into a new problem. It is only open at half capacity. This has been the case for months. And parents are desperate to get their kids in the door.

“I made people cry in my waiting area,” she said. “The worst part of the whole thing is having the burden of many of these people around you. I can’t even walk downtown. “Do you have space? Do you?’ I don’t even go downtown. You know, they are desperate. “

As the parents go back to work, she has to open up completely again. But she has staff shortages and said she is about to close if she loses more teachers.

“We don’t have the staff to work and no one applies,” she said. “And we tried, it was on social media. Mine was in the newspaper, every parent I talk to who is looking for childcare, I say: If you know someone, send them over to us. “

Just down the street, Erika Apathy runs the Betty Eliason Child Care Center, where they had to cut back for the same reason.

“We actually had to drastically reduce our program hours for our school-age children because we don’t have staff,” she said. “So I had to tell the parents, ‘I’m sorry, I can only have your children here from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.’ Because if I have them here all day, it can affect our license and we can be closed for not complying with them. “

Sitka vendors aren’t the only ones reporting challenges as the state begins to recover from the pandemic. In March, the state Child Care Program Office surveyed 420 childcare providers, including day care centers. 87 percent said they were concerned about the change in their operational status. Most said financial needs were the primary concern and while there are waiting lists for childcare in Sitka, enrollment is actually falling across the country.

Jenni Pollard works for Thread Alaska, a nationwide childcare organization. The personnel problem is not new, she says.

“You know, early childhood workforce recruitment and retention was a problem before COVID and remains an issue today, especially in smaller communities,” she said. “This is a workforce that does valuable work but has an average hourly wage of about $ 12 an hour and many of them work with no insurance or benefits.”

Pollard said the low salary is its biggest deterrent, but a competitive hiring market makes it harder than usual to find staff. But higher wages mean higher tuition fees for parents, and tuition fees are already high to cover surgeries. But most centers want to pay their employees more.

“We hear that employees must primarily help with wages and bonuses, hiring and retention incentives, and even professional development,” said Pollard.

In their responses to the country survey Nearly 60 percent of childcare providers said they need money for raise and bonuses to keep staff. 47% said they needed incentives for recruiting and retention.

Some help is on the way. The state is now trying to determine how it will spend federal funds from the CARES and American Rescue Plan Acts – totaling nearly $ 92 million – on childcare.

While it is not yet entirely clear how the money will be distributed, both Miller and Apathy hope it will make it through this fall and help them get through the winter. Even so, Miller said the funding is a bridging one and she hopes people will start advocating for longer-term solutions locally.

“For our community, if they want their people to work, and if they want a viable economy here in Sitka, someone has to brainstorm and help us get people into our building. ” She said.

Miller said childcare is a critical infrastructure and only if Americans recognize it as such will problems within the industry be resolved.

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