Early childhood care options lack availability, affordability
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Every second, one million new nuero connectors are formed in an infant’s brain, said Tami Havener, executive director of the Discovery Learning Center.
And about 90 to 95 percent of brain development occurs by the time a child enters kindergarten.
It’s “an amazing time,” she said, when kids learn critical thinking and social-emotional skills and “set the stage for the rest of their lives.”
While research leaves no doubt about the magnitude of development in the first five years of life, there is a lack of prioritization nationally, and it remains a persistent challenge locally for families to find affordable, high-quality childcare.
It impacts not only families, but the entire economy as parents weigh the cost of working and paying for child care — if they can find it — versus staying at home.
“Everyone recognizes birth to three is really where the problem is,” said Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, co-chair of the First Impressions Early Childhood Council along with Steamboat Springs City Council President Jason Lacy.
First Impressions of Routt County, a nonprofit housed under the Department of Human Services and tasked with directing resources, is currently conducting a “needs assessment” and subsequent community plan to better understand and address the challenges.
“I was on every waiting list in town,” said parent Elizabeth Kirt, while trying to find a place for her one-year-old son. “Everybody was full.”
She and her husband went so far as to consider selling their house and moving to North Routt because a day care facility had an opening. They tried a nanny, but at $17 per hour, it made more sense for Kirt to stay home. She didn’t go back to work as a nurse practitioner.
For a while, she entertained opening a day care in her home. But when Kirt’s son turned two and a half, the doors opened.
There are many more options once a child hits two-and-a-half or three, though they typically have to be potty trained.
There are a lot of high-quality programs for the three to five age group, Havener said, with some, though still not enough, openings.
Even then, Kirt barely got her son enrolled. Applying to a center with a first come, first served policy, she showed up at 6 a.m. The center opened at 7:30 a.m., and there were already five people ahead of her. “It was like Black Friday for day care,” she said.
And if you can find a spot, it still isn’t cheap. Preschool is almost as much as their mortgage, Kirt said, but well worth it.
However, the cost, as well as the difficulty finding early care, factored into Kirt and her husband’s decision to stick with one offspring.
Preschool can cost families as much as $1,500 a month — for one kid.
After parent Angie Baker had her first baby, she decided to quit her job as a teacher to stay at home. She and her husband did the math, and “It didn’t factor out,” she said.
Between her commute, the expense of day care at $63 per day, if she made it off the waitlist, and a few other logistical factors, Baker decided, “I’m not going to work for $20 per day.”
The “tri-lemma” of childcare quality, affordability and availability is not unique to the Steamboat Springs area, noted Havener.
And it is much harder for infant to 2.5 years care to be financially viable for providers because of the almost double teacher ratio required, she added.
In Routt County, average daily costs at care centers range from $40 to $67. For licensed in-home care providers, daily rates range from $30 to $60.
Of course, there are other options — nannies, babysitters, au pairs, trade-offs with other parents and providers who are not licensed. According to state law, childcare is allowed without licensing for a maximum of four children unrelated to the provider, though no more than two of the four children can be under the age of two.
The limit was raised from two to four in 2017, which allows more in-home caregivers to operate above board with a couple more kids and offers better connections to clients and resources.
Still, finding affordable, reliable care with enough consistent hours is a challenge.
As a nonprofit, Havener said she has some “pretty amazing donors,” and is able to provide financial assistance for families as well as bolster pay and benefits for her teachers.
In terms of funding assistance, there are some options out there for those who qualify. At Discovery, Havener said about half their families receive some form of assistance.
Other sources include the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, the Colorado Preschool Program and First Impressions funding — city, county, and United Way — as well as private donations and grant funding.
First Impressions Program Manager Stephanie Martin points out it is still a struggle for many who are just making ends meet and don’t qualify for assistance, especially given the high cost of living in Routt County.
Corrigan also notes the First Impressions Council set a goal in “erasing the distinction between childcare and early childhood education. We made the commitment for all programs to be high quality and meet high standards,” which often requires a larger investment.
While some communities provide more dedicated tax dollars for early childhood care, Corrigan said that’s a conversation that may happen down the road. “It’s not fair to ask for money until we know how much we need,” he said, and “until we define the size and scope of the problem.”
That’s what the new needs assessment hopes to do. Martin calls the effort a “deep dive,” and a chance to gather input and data and collaborate with every stakeholder.
From the economic perspective, it is a challenge for the community as a whole to keep new parents in the workforce — maintaining an environment both attractive to employers and young families.
With a relatively low unemployment rate, businesses are having a hard time retaining employees, said Steamboat Chamber Resort Association Economic Development Director John Bristol. “And childcare is a major factor.”
During the First Impressions working groups, Corrigan facilitated the group of employers, which brought together sectors including the mountain, hospital, school district and several banks and smaller employers. “There was a lot of discussion about how they are losing really good employees because of childcare and housing,” Corrigan said.
In Routt County, Martin said 77 percent of children younger than six have both parents in the labor force, 67 percent for Colorado.
Corrigan said the employers’ issues went hand-in-hand with those expressed by employees.
In Steamboat’s growing surrounding communities, establishing more childcare options will make it easier to establish employers, he said.
Baker, who lives in Oak Creek, said she knows many other families in the same boat and other “employable people who are at home because they can’t find daycare.”
“Most of the time, I’m really thankful I get to stay at home with my kids,” Baker said. But she also misses teaching.
On First Impression’s recent listening tour, Martin gathered input in Oak Creek and Hayden.
Both towns and surrounding communities are seeing an increase in younger people and more young children, with many parents working in Steamboat.
With the commute, and jobs that require hours outside of the traditional workday, Martin said she heard of a need for day care with more hours.
One family said they were on 19 waitlists in Steamboat and Hayden for infant care.
While there are a handful of licensed centers in Hayden, there aren’t any in Oak Creek. The only in the area — South Routt Early Learning Center — is in Yampa as part of the school district, and it’s often at capacity.
In an ideal world, according to Havener, there would be more funding for paid parental leave. Many mothers want to stay home, but don’t have the option.
Even with the expense of childcare, many parents need to keep their spot in the workforce and keep their health insurance, Martin said.
Of 34 advanced countries, the United States is the only country without a law providing paid maternity leave.
Havener would also like to see more investment in teachers — those who are spending significant hours with infants and toddlers during that most crucial time of development.
“Wouldn’t it be great if they could make as much as teachers working in the school district,” Martin asked.
As far as advice to parents looking for childcare, Kirt suggests being really proactive and reaching out, “maybe even before conception.”
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