Need for increased child care remains a key issue for Summit County families
During the 2020-21 school year, Amron Myers worked full time managing the Red Buffalo coffee shop. At the same time, she was home-schooling her now 9-year-old daughter and was pregnant with her son.
“Instead of finding child care that would pretty much just negate my paycheck, she just came to work with me,” Myers said of her daughter. “I had a moment when I was working one day last year that I realized I was managing a busy coffee shop while my daughter was there, and I was being her teacher, and I was growing a human at the same time. I was like, ‘I think this is a bit much right now.’”
After Myers had her son and returned to work, she found a friend who would watch her kids at a reasonable price. But once that friend had her own baby, Myers had to start looking for other options. She found a high schooler to watch her kids a few days a week, but she will soon be heading back to school and again leaving Myers without child care.
“This whole process caused a lot of stress in my life and a lot of struggle of trying to find a reliable person that’s going to help take care of my children, who I love and care about,” Myers said. “… It definitely dampered my mental health for a bit. I feel like I couldn’t get ahead.”
It’s no secret that finding child care is a challenge for many Summit County families. These challenges have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and the county has yet to see a return to normalcy.
Because of this, Myers is leaving her job to take care of her son. She is also looking to help other families by getting licensed and starting her own at-home child care operation.
“There’s a part of me that just wants to help other families that may be struggling with the same thing,” Myers said. “And also I need the income. Summit County is expensive; we can’t survive on just my husband.”
Myers is now speaking with local families to determine who will be the best fit based on what folks can afford and when they need care. She said so far she’s been talking to families that only need care one or two days per week so she can limit the number of children in her home at a time.
She added that she is going to make sure her services will be affordable, and she thinks babysitters and nannies need to be more realistic with their pricing.
More demand, limited supply
As more folks get back on a full-time work schedule, the demand for child care is increasing, but the supply remains limited.
“Child care is just so critical to getting our workforce back up and going, and without it being widely available, affordable and consistent, I don’t know that we will be able to get our workforce completely back up and going,” Early Childhood Options Executive Director Lucinda Burns said.
Burns said the number of registered at-home caregivers is lower than normal, what she called a state and nationwide trend. There are currently about 14 licensed home providers in Summit County. Burns said when she started working with Early Childhood Options there were about 45.
One can care for up to four children in their home without a license, including their own kids. With a license, one can care for up to six preschool-aged kids and two school-aged kids. Burns encouraged individuals thinking about getting a license to contact her office, which offers training and other resources.
Burns also said capacities in day care centers haven’t increased since the pandemic started. In fact, she said they’re likely lower now due to staffing difficulties.
“Part of the challenge with that is programs can’t really expand their capacity or go back to the full-operating capacity and hours that they were pre-COVID until we can get the staffing more stabilized,” Burns said. “… We want well-qualified, well-paid staff working with our children. That’s by far the biggest challenge child care programs are having right now.”
Burns also encouraged families to be supportive and patient with child care providers while they work through the issue.
Quarantines could pose another issue for child care facilities since children are not eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. Though, Burns said there haven’t been any outbreaks at the county’s child care programs so far this summer.
Big picture solutions
Local elected officials are also trying to combat the problem.
Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence is a member of a state transition advisory group meant to advise the state in the formation of a new early childhood department by the end of this year. The group will also give advice for the state’s plans for universal preschool.
Lawrence said in working with this group, she wants to emphasize the importance of retaining good staff while expanding child care options.
“We can’t talk about universal pre-K and expansion and all this other stuff until we address what needs to happen to make this a viable career, and part of that is housing and part of that is wages,” Lawrence said. “They’re teaching our children and spending time with them, and they should be compensated adequately. They’re not babysitters; what they’re doing is a true profession.”
Lawrence said she is proud that Summit County voters have continued to prioritize child care.
“Our community just continues to say, ‘Yes, we value early childhood education here in Summit County,’” Lawrence said. “… We know how important it is for our workforce. If kids can’t be in preschool … then parents can’t go to work.”
Stepping out of the comfort zone
The Lake Dillon Theatre Co.is also looking to get involved in developing child care solutions, despite it being entirely outside the nonprofit’s realm.
Chris Alleman, artistic director at the Lake Dillon Theatre Co., said the organization was approached by the county and the Keystone Science School to see if it could help with child care on the north end of the county. Alleman said the company wanted to find a way to do so while staying true to its mission.
“We don’t have the infrastructure for it in many ways,” Alleman said. “We don’t have the expertise for it, but we certainly want to be a part of the solution for our community because without our community none of us would be here.”
When the school district’s spring semester starts, the company will look to start a dual-language after-school program for kids from Silverthorne Elementary and Dillon Valley Elementary. The program would provide opportunities for students to engage with theater, music, creative writing, dance and other forms of art.
Alleman said he is invested in the idea of using the arts as a conduit to teach math, science and English. He wanted the company’s program to not only help with after-school care but to serve as a dual language and arts-integration program. Alleman also hopes the program will be offered for free.
The biggest challenge has been finding folks to work the program. While the theater initially wanted to get started in the fall, Alleman said they pushed it back to the spring to take time to find qualified teachers.
“We’re looking for a very specific skill set of … Spanish- and English-speaking teaching artists, actors and instructors,” Alleman said. “We really reached a point where we couldn’t help with the fall because it was going to take us more than three weeks to find these artists, get them moved to Summit County and find them housing.”
Alleman said the company will also produce a dual-language production and will work with the school district to transport students to see it. He said the group’s teaching artists would hopefully go into the schools before and after the production to see how it impacted students’ learning.
“The best-case scenario for us is that we can create the structure of this program, and we can get community buy-in from governments, individuals and foundations,” Alleman said. “… We can create a safe place for students to come to be creative, to engage with each other, to learn empathy and then to have this dual-language theater program to just open the cultural awareness of our community.”
Alleman said finding solutions for child care needs to be a communitywide effort.
“Our funding sources, if they’re really serious about helping solve this problem, they need to understand that this is not a one-time funding issue.” Alleman said. “… This is going to be an ongoing challenge, and the community needs to get behind it.”
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