“We need to educate our communities, our state and our nation on what child care is.”
Sherry Tiegs hammered that message into the minds of those who attended a webinar offered by the Center for Rural Policy and Development Thursday, Feb. 18, to discuss the state of child care in rural Minnesota.
Tiegs, who owns Sherry Tiegs Family Childcare & Playschool in Morris, joined Karen DeVos, owner of Little Learners Early Childhood Center in Ada, fielded questions about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on child care in rural Minnesota and what needs to be done to save child care providers.
Public funding, more government grants and discussions on the importance of child care are all part of the solution Tiegs and DeVos mentioned during the webinar.
Child care in Greater Minnesota
Marnie Werner, vice president of research and operations, for the Center for Rural Policy and Development, presented statistics on the child care capacity throughout the state and what those numbers mean for families and providers. Data was split between family child care providers and child care centers. Family providers are those who operate individually outside of daycare centers, typically within their own homes.
According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, family child care facilities in Greater Minnesota declined by 35,455 from 2000 to 2020, with 55,213 reported in 2020. Child care centers increased by more than 15,000 in that time, rising to 40,933, though that increase does not make up for the family child care decline. In the 20-year period, Greater Minnesota’s child care capacity decreased by 20,252, with 96,164 spots available.
A closer look at individual regions in the state shows a 56% shortfall in child care capacity in central Minnesota.
Werner broke the state up into Initiative Foundation regions to show how much child care capacities would have to grow in each area to meet needs based on population. In the 14-county central Minnesota region — which includes Cass, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties — there were 27,534 total child care spots available at the end of 2020, potentially leaving 15,393 children without child care options, according estimates based on U.S. Census Bureau data. The 56% shortfall — the number by which the capacity would have to rise to cover all children — increased from an estimated 48% at the end of 2015.
"We had staff who had friends who were at home collecting unemployment, making more than what my team was making showing up every single day, working hard and putting themselves and their families at risk. So that was defeating at times and really frustrating."
— Sherry Tiegs, child care provider
In high-population density areas, Werner said there are more families with higher incomes who can afford to pay the rates providers need to charge. In child care deserts, however, there are usually more lower income families who may not be able to afford as high of rates, Werner said, even though child care providers in those areas incur the same costs as their metro counterparts. Rural communities and urban neighborhoods are often referred to as child care deserts, as they are very few or sometimes no child care options available for families.
Studies show, Werner said, that more and more family providers are retiring with few newcomers coming to replace them, especially in urban areas, where large centers do well and edge out family providers. The economics of large centers don’t always work in rural areas without extra effort though, she said, yet family providers are still leaving those areas.
Watch the webinar
Child care facilities that have weathered the pandemic haven’t had an easy go of it, with group limitations and increased equipment costs.
With group sizes generally capped at 10 people per room in the early days of the pandemic, extra staff members are needed to monitor the rooms. But the facilities without the additional room to spread out have to send kids home or to other facilities, if available.
Enrollment dwindled for some as well, with parents who lost their jobs and could no longer afford child care or those who worked from home and decided to keep their kids home with them. Illness and quarantine regulations hampered enrollment at times, too.
On the flip side, some providers had to take in school-aged children during distance learning, which drove up costs for food, wireless internet and other necessities.
Tiegs said all her utility bills increased in 2020, and even though she had fewer children, DeVos said her 2020 payroll expenses were 34% higher than in 2019, which is entirely due to COVID-19. She now has to have staff members available to take temperatures at the door and dress the kids and get them ready to leave, as parents are not allowed inside.
While her staff and those around her pulled together to help, DeVos said it has still been incredibly difficult.
“We had staff who had friends who were at home collecting unemployment, making more than what my team was making showing up every single day, working hard and putting themselves and their families at risk. So that was defeating at times and really frustrating,” she said.
Grants and funding
If it weren’t for the grants that came during COVID-19, DeVos said she may not have been able to keep her doors open.
The state offered three rounds of emergency grants for family providers, licensed centers and legal nonlicensed centers, with monthly payments of $1,200, $8,500 and $3,000, respectively.
Tiegs noted $1,200 is less than some house payments.
“I will take it if that’s what it is, but it would be great if it was more,” she said.
The state’s Child Care Assistance Program reimburses low-income families for a portion of their child care costs. Those reimbursements are an important revenue source for providers, Werner said, but they aren’t always enough. There is still a gap for some families who make too much money to qualify for assistance programs but don’t make enough to afford high-quality child care.
Werner suggested extra payments on top of reimbursements for those in rural settings and other child care deserts. These additional funds could not only help existing providers stay in business but also incentivize new providers to set up shop.
What is child care?
Is child care a business? Is it a school? Should it be publicly or privately funded?
“Right now child care operates as either a highly regulated private business or a very underfunded public school. We need to decide what it is,” Werner said.
Tiegs said she often hears that child care costs too much. But as with any good or service, you get what you pay for, she said. Caring for children and doing it well comes at an expense.
“Children deserve a program that is going to lift them up, meet their development needs,” Tiegs said. “We need to give them healthy developmental experiences and opportunities, and you’re going to get that in a quality program.”
One webinar viewer said they had a question from a local politician recently, asking why education needed to be infused into child care and why it couldn’t just simply be looking after kids.”
“I would love it if businesses would seek me out. ... We are vital, and if anything, this pandemic has proven that.”
— Karen DeVos, child care provider
“Has anybody ever had a child repeat something they wish they hadn’t? Our kids are learning in every single moment of every single day,” DeVos said. “Education is not pencil to paper, teaching kids to write a letter. Education is talking to them and reading to them and helping them build their vocabulary by the simple things that we should be doing every single day. Play is their education.”
DeVos said it breaks her heart when she hears parents talking about sending their children to “real school” for preschool or kindergarten after having been in her care for two years.
“I don’t think that’s an intentional thing. I think it’s an education thing for communities, for families to understand the importance of the work that we’re doing from birth on,” DeVos said.
Developmental growth is education, Tiegs pointed out, noting the work child care providers do with children will help prepare them for a traditional classroom and even a workplace later in life.
“My job is to make sure their social emotional development is solid and very confident and that they can express their needs,” Tiegs said. “That is education. So when they get to kindergarten, they can sit next to the child next to them and learn and not poke them and push them and get up and run around and that poor teacher can’t teach. So that is what I’m talking about when we say we need to educate.”
But even after instilling the value of quality child care in the minds of the public, cost is still an issue and will continue to be an issue unless the right steps are taken moving forward. The big conundrum seems to be families not being able to afford high-priced child care and child care providers not being able to operate without charging a certain amount.
From the center perspective, DeVos said it’s hard for child care centers to make in Greater Minnesota without community partnerships. Her center, for example, operates in a nursing home and offers discounted rates for nursing home employees in exchange for space, meaning she does not pay any rent.
Werner noted Sourcewell’s child care licensing support program, which offers tools and resources to help parents find licensed providers and to help providers access official documentation for maintaining licensing requirements. The program is a partnership among Becker, Cass, Crow Wing, Douglas, Morrison, Stevens, Todd and Wadena Counties.
Family child care is usually more feasible in rural areas, DeVos said, but the women agreed both family care and center care is needed to provide families with options, and they need to work together to make sure those options continue to be available.
“It’s just different — apples and oranges — but we’re all part of the same fruit salad,” Tiegs said.
Aside from government reimbursements and incentives, Werner said other necessary steps to take to solve the child care crises are employer partnerships and meaningful legislation.
Employers need to be involved in the child care discussion, she said, as they have high stakes in the industry. If parents can’t find child care, then they can’t be expected to join the workforce.
While some employers do have their own child care facilities for employees, not all businesses can afford to do that. But their part can be as simple as contributing funds, space or other resources to a larger community project geared toward supporting child care providers.
Legislation is an important piece of the puzzle, too, Werner said, noting that policies need to be continuously monitored for unintended consequences. There were helpful legislative updates in 2019, she said, dealing with issues like training requirements, transportation, county licensing and plain language.
Legislators also have to make sure they’re allowing for creativity and flexibility for providers as well.
The flexible pod format, Werner said, allows for several independent family child care providers to operate in their own space within the same facility without being an actual center. This way they can share overhead costs and don’t have to use their own homes as their places of work.
DeVos noted she and other child care providers aren’t always asked to be at the table when legislative and business decisions are being made, which may not be intentional but is something that needs to change.
“I would love it if businesses would seek me out,” she said. “... We are vital, and if anything, this pandemic has proven that.”
No matter the solution, the resounding message from the webinar was that something needs to be done and needs to be done now to support the necessity that is child care.
“Child care is no longer a luxury that we can afford to ignore. It’s an economic development tool and an indispensable part of our economic infrastructure, especially in Greater Minnesota,” Werner said. “We have an opportunity to have real impact on the child care crisis if we can just reach out and grab it.”