Essential but lacking: Child care is key to reopening the economy, but COVID-19 has made the shortage worse than ever
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For the Young Tracks Preschool and Child Care Center on the west side of Steamboat Springs, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a push into a regimented, high-tech future.
Since reopening, the early childhood nonprofit has implemented several major changes to its operations to keep children and staff safe, according to Executive Director Kim Martin.
When parents drop off their kids, they do so at a specific door according to the child’s age. At each door is a barcode the parents scan using a cellphone like one now does to pull up a restaurant menu. The code goes to a digital registration menu, which parents use to sign in their children.
Finally, an employee comes to the door and checks the child’s temperature. If it’s below 99.5 degrees, the child is free to go inside.
“It’s gotten really high-tech really fast,” Martin said.
In recent weeks, debates have focused on the start of the 2020-21 school year as the country grapples with the pandemic. Just as important is the availability of early child care, which a recent New York Times headline called the “Big New Obstacle for Economic Recovery.”
State officials, including the Colorado Office of Early Childhood, encouraged child care centers to stay open even during the statewide shutdown beginning in March as a way to keep parents working, particularly frontline health care employees. The vast majority of providers in Routt County closed their doors, a decision based on both health concerns and low enrollment as parents who either lost their jobs or were working from home no longer needed child care. The centers have since reopened but with budgeting and enrollment hurdles.
With the start of the school year looming ever nearer, and with questions over how many parents will allow their kids to return to school at all, child care centers find themselves with a lot of uncertainty over their businesses that have long operated under tight budgets.
As Martin put it, “We were already in a child care crisis before we were in a health crisis.”
Getting Routt County back to work
Last week, local leaders discussed the most recent data on the economic impact of the pandemic. Routt County had the ninth-highest unemployment rate in June at 13.1%, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Many businesses are looking to rehire as the county continues its path to recovery, but it is not always an easy decision for some people to return to work. The availability of child care is a major factor.
Most families in Routt County, 77% according to county data, have children younger than 6 with both parents in the workforce. The issue, as Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton has been reiterating since before she was on the campaign trail, has been a longtime shortage of early child care providers.
At last count, there were enough infant and toddler care centers to serve just 15% of the children in Routt County with working parents, according to Melton. The lack of open slots means many families struggle to find a safe option for families that need to work to make ends meet, pandemic or not.
“Even if you don’t have kids, the people you rely on at your favorite businesses probably do,” Melton said. “We all benefit when people can return to work.”
Melton herself has felt the effects of limited access to child care firsthand during the pandemic.
When day care centers were closed, her 4-year-old son Clark made occasional appearances at the virtual Routt County Board of Commissioners meetings. The boy’s charisma added a little humor to otherwise somber pandemic-related topics, but Melton also openly described moments when she was juggling a busy work schedule with caring for her son. Keeping children, particularly younger kids, entertained and fed can be a full-time job on its own. For a busy person like Melton, finding time just to feed herself can be a matter of scheduling acrobatics.
Other parents have faced similar challenges throughout the pandemic. Julie Reynolds is a single mother of two children, ages 3 and 9. When schools suddenly closed in March along with the child care facility she used, it forced Reynolds to make some difficult decisions.
She tried to work from home, but her duties at the Routt County District Attorney’s Office made it almost impossible to be productive remotely. So, Reynolds kept her older daughter Coralie at home, which felt awful to a worried mother, while she took her 3-year-old Margaux to the office.
Reynolds had to leave her daughter in the same room used for victims and witnesses during court proceedings, where Margaux mostly watched TV.
“She was miserable, and I was miserable,” Reynolds said.
Fortunately by the end of March, the state introduced the Emergency Child Care Collaborative to fund providers as an incentive to stay open. Using the online database, Reynolds was able to find a private, at-home caretaker in the Silver Spur neighborhood.
“That was a huge saving grace,” she said.
The program concluded at the end of May, and ever since, Reynolds has been wondering what to do with her youngest during the school year. Margaux was supposed to be starting at Mountain Village Montessori Charter School this fall, but due to the uncertainty over how long schools will stay open, Reynolds decided to keep her in day care.
It is not the decision she wants to make. A former Montessori teacher, Reynolds values the teaching style and wants her children to get the most out of their schooling.
“But right now, I feel like my choices aren’t about education. It is sadly more about who is going to offer the most reliable care,” she said, adding it was the best way to assure she could continue working.
How school impacts child care
Reynolds is one of many questioning what to do as the school year approaches. A panel discussion hosted and moderated by the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Thursday attempted to offer some clarity in this area by convening officials from the Steamboat Springs School District.
The district plans to take a hybrid approach to the first semester of the year with half of the week in school and the other half at home. Hayden and South Routt districts are taking more liberal approaches with a plan to offer full-day, in-person learning with mitigation protocols. In all Routt County districts, parents have the option to enroll their children in a fully online option.
The deadline to register for online learning is Aug. 13, according to Jay Hamric, director of teaching and learning for the Steamboat Springs School District. Parents then have 10 days to change their minds, after which they will be locked into their decision for the duration of the first semester.
What this means is that child care centers are unsure exactly what their enrollment will look like in the coming months. If parents opt for online courses, that likely means they will not enroll their younger children in day care. If schools close again, parents could pull their infants and toddlers from care facilities, too.
Such is the concern Colleen Miller has for her nonprofit, the Family Development Center. She has been operating services at a reduced capacity due to the pandemic but plans to open for full enrollment for the school year.
There currently is a waitlist for her day care and preschool, Miller said, a testament to the shortage of such services in the community. While she hopes those numbers stay solid, Miller is bracing for bad news.
“If a few families pull out or disenroll, that affects everything,” Miller said.
She added how child care businesses already operate at such tight margins that even minor changes in enrollment can have major effects on revenue.
Then there is the risk of an outbreak occurring at her own facility. A day care has yet to be the site of a positive COVID-19 case in Routt County, but the possibility weighs on Miller’s mind. Her center, along with all facilities in the county, have ramped up sanitation measures and implemented other mitigation protocols.
“If we have to shut down for COVID, or if we are mandated to shut down by the governor or a local requirement, then that’s lost revenue,” Miller explained.
To make matters worse, she also is dealing with a disruption to grant funding streams, a major source of income for any nonprofit. Last week, she lost a $20,000 grant after the grantor lost the money as a result of the pandemic. Nonprofits across the county, not just those that offer child care, have described similar financial troubles.
Where the pandemic has wreaked mayhem, it also has brought new opportunities for local child care centers in ways never anticipated.
As Martin with Young Tracks explained, some of the new technological improvements her facility implemented have been helpful to doing business. The application she uses to digitally sign in students also allows teachers to chat directly with parents throughout the day. They can even send photos of the children playing outside or showing off their latest finger-painted masterpiece.
“We have gotten really positive feedback on it,” Martin said of the app.
One care provider, Little Lambs Daycare in Phippsburg, might be weathering the pandemic better than other facilities in the county.
Kasey O’Halloran, who founded Little Lambs a little over a year ago with her husband, Kieran, said their facility is the only local facility that never closed during the shutdown. While she had to temporarily reduce staff hours due to a cut to enrollment, she received enough money from the Paycheck Protection Program to get everyone back on payroll.
With all of the small business grants developed specifically for COVID-19 relief, O’Halloran has been able to apply for funding she usually is not eligible for as a for-profit care center.
“I got grant money I never anticipated being able to get,” she said. “It’s a very strange blessing we’ve had happen to us.”
More money is becoming available for other providers. Using a Marshall Plan-esque stimulus effort to aid a struggling industry, Colorado is allocating $42 million of its coronavirus relief funding for child care, more than half of which it is giving directly to providers. While the money comes as a welcome show of support, a lingering question is if it can to sustain the industry in the long term.
For families seeking financial assistance for their young children, the county offers Colorado Childcare Assistance Program and First Impressions tuition assistance to help families pay for child care, according to Kelly Keith, director of human services.
While it is too early to say exactly, Keith anticipates a spike in calls and applications for child support services. The weeks leading up to the school year typically see a rise for these services, but she expects financial hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic to exacerbate the need for cash assistance, which requires families to also apply for child support.
“All of our programs will see an increase because of that,” Keith said.
Subsidies both for child care centers or the families that rely on them are key to reopening the economy, Miller, with the Family Development Center, said.
As she put it, “Without child care, we can’t expect people to work.”
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