345 children on pre-K waiting lists in Summit County due to lack of space, staffing shortage | SummitDaily.com

345 children on pre-K waiting lists in Summit County due to lack of space, staffing shortage

Summit County is facing a veritable crisis when it comes to early childhood care. According to a study commissioned by Summit early childcare non-profit Early Childhood Options, waiting lists for preschool and licensed early childcare centers now number in the hundreds due to lack of capacity.

The study found that the county's 28 early childcare providers — including licensed childcare centers, public elementary school options, and licensed family childcare providers — have a daily capacity of 680 children, while 763 children were recorded using early childcare services in the county as of this year.

The report found that 345 children are currently on the waitlist for early an early childcare provider, with infants (between 0 and 12 months) and toddlers (between 12 and 36 months old) each taking up 38 percent of the total.

The report concluded that the high proportion of infants and toddlers on the waitlist is a reflection of the broader childcare market, which has relatively low capacity for children under three.

The report also projected that Summit's need for early childcare will only increase with the population, and by 2025 there may be 493 children on waiting lists for early childhood care.

Low-income households are in even more of a crunch, as government-subsidized programs like Early Start and Head Start have limited slots to begin with.

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Elizabeth Edgar, Early Start and Head Start director for early childhood options, said that there are two main reasons for the long waitlist for childcare in the county. The first is simply lack of room for all the demand from working parents — every early childhood and pre-school classroom is full.

Building new classrooms or childcare centers is also expensive, and the county doesn't have much available land. The second is lack of qualified personnel to staff new classrooms even if they were built, a problem known in many areas of the Summit workforce due to the high cost of living.

Edgar said that many parents come to rely on early childcare, mainly due to work.

"Early childhood care is important because parents need to work, and if they can't find quality care they can't work," Edgar said.

As far as the benefits of early childhood care for the children, Edgar said that there's a clear correlation between children who receive early childhood care going into regular school and those that don't.

"We know from current brain research that the ages of 0 to 5 are critical areas for development," Edgar said. "At that stage, the brain is still developing, and early childcare and education can impact a child's capacity to do well in school. Early childhood care and education also prepares children better for kindergarten than children who don't have it."

As far as solutions, there is a stop-gap on the horizon — Ballot Initiative 1A. The multi-issue ballot measure would provide $2.5 million for early childhood learning. Lucinda Burns, executive director of Early Childhood Options, said the money would go toward tuition assistance for four-year-olds as well as putting money into a capital fund for a new childcare center.

"It would not immediately address the needs for infants and toddlers, but if we can solve the accessibility problem for four-year-olds, we can start working on those other segments," Burns said. "That funding will be a big boost for the community."

Burns goes on to point out how expensive child care is to provide, as well as all the downstream effects of the lack of affordable early childcare in Summit.

"It's a struggle in the childcare industry, because what it costs to deliver services isn't what parents can afford," she said. "The lack of affordable early childcare impacts parents in the county workforce, which in turn impacts employers, and certainly negatively affects children. We would like to flip that to start having a positive impact."