Commissioners, school officials discuss what role districts could play to address child care crisis
The superintendents of each Routt County school district met with county commissioners last week to discuss the ongoing child care shortage and what role the districts may have to play in a potential solution.
Child care has always been hard to come by in the Yampa Valley, and that was only made worse when the only child care center in South Routt County closed shortly before the school year due to lack of staffing.
“It’s been challenging with Little Lambs closing in South Routt,” said Angela Pleshe, program leader with First Impressions of Routt County. “It’s been, obviously, an ongoing problem with the workforce of early childhood education as a profession.”
Pleshe said she believes the problem is starting to affect more people — even those who may not have children — as the workforce shortage is impacting businesses throughout town.
“Everybody’s really feeling the workforce shortage,” Pleshe said. “People can’t find child care because they don’t have enough teachers, and so other businesses are affected.”
Rim Watson, superintendent of the South Routt School District, said he currently has two elementary teacher positions open in the district without any applications since June. One promising applicant accepted, before withdrawing when they couldn’t find housing or child care.
Even if he is able to retain staff, if they don’t have child care, keeping their focus can be challenging.
“If our teachers cannot find adequate day care for the kids, you lose them a little bit mentally, even if they are there,” Watson said. “Losing (Little Lambs) in our district was a big deal, a lot bigger than I thought it would touch us. It touched us a lot.”
Some of his staff are using two or three different people to care for their child during any given week, Watson said.
Watson said the district explored trying to set up some sort of child care for its employees but abandoned that effort because he couldn’t even staff his school, let alone a child care center.
“Major issue, major challenge, and I do not know the answer,” Watson said.
Routt County is not alone, as there is a shortage of child care workers across Colorado, though the problem is worse in resort communities where the cost of living has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic.
Facing a similar issue, the West Grand School District opted to open its own child care center in partnership with the local childhood council and a local health care center that also had employees struggling to find care, according to The Colorado Sun.
Commissioner Beth Melton shared the Sun story with the superintendents to spur the conversation about what role, if any, the districts may have to take to address the issue.
Steamboat Springs Superintendent Brad Meeks said when he hears of a school that is able to provide child care for teachers, his first question is how they are making it work financially.
“It is quite expensive to do that,” Meeks said, referring to infant care that requires one teacher for every four infants.
Meeks said it likely would be appealing to parents if the district were able to offer child care, and the district would also have more time with a student from an educational perspective.
“How do you sustain it?” Meeks said. “We all agree we need more in whatever model works, but then how do you come up with the resources to sustain it year in and year out?”
“I’ll go back to the greater community, as well as businesses and everyone that employs people. What are they willing to contribute to this?” Meeks continued.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan mused about how districts could set up child care if the state would provide funding for all children from birth rather than just school-aged children.
“All these complicating factors make it a huge challenge,” Watson said. “You can’t short staff a day care.”
Facilities can also be a problem. Hayden Superintendent Christy Sinner said their school buildings are full right now, and building something to meet infant care regulations wouldn’t be easy.
“The regulations when you go birth to (age) 3 are such a totally different ball game to be playing with,” Sinner said. “(Corrigan) asked if we could do it with (per pupil operating revenue), but that doesn’t take into account everything that is needed to have a facility.”
There has been some work done locally to set up a pipeline of local students to go into the child care field, but Melton said it is difficult to convince a student to pursue a career in an industry where the pay is so low.
“It’s a little hard to, with a straight face, stand in front of a group of high school students and say, ‘Hey, we really want to train you to do this job, and you’re going to get paid $15 an hour,’” Melton said. “That is part of the issue. We need to figure out how preschool teachers and child care providers can be paid more than what the market currently allows.”
Melton said they hope to be able to push pay for child care workers to $25 per hour.
First Impressions has tried to ease the current situation by changing how the local child care assistance program works, making it more flexible for parents. Pleshe said her organization is also requiring parents to apply for state child care assistance before coming to the county.
Pleshe said she is also talking to various centers about their operational costs, such as plowing their parking lots and cleaning classrooms to see if more cooperation could help them spend more on caring for children. Pleshe also suggested hiring a grant writer specifically for child care centers.
“That is not a long-term sustainable plan because this is a one-time pot of money,” Pleshe said. “Can you offer something to keep (child care teachers) at least for right now, while we work toward a possible tax initiative or some sort of mechanism that would be a sustainable funding source?”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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