If you walk past any restaurant or retail store in Grand County chances are you will see a Help Wanted sign in the window. And when food is slow, fuel is short, or doors are closed, the reason most frequently cited is a labor shortage. But what isn’t discussed is the shortage behind the shortage–a scarcity of affordable quality child care, itself caused by a lack of available and qualified staff.
The issue was already of concern in Grand County and across the state prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, state leaders felt that the child care needs of most school-aged children were being met but that there was a dearth of care for infant to five-year-old children.
Yet, research shows that those same years (0-5) are the most critical for human brain development, according to Katy Hale, Executive Director of Grand Beginnings, Grand County’s primary resource for early childhood care.
Lawmakers, educators, and businesses have recognized the concern in recent years and have put forth a number of initiatives
to help address the issue.
At the state level, various legislation has been passed. In 2019, the State began paying for all-day kindergarten for all Colorado students. In 2020, voters approved a nicotine tax that will help pay for part-time preschool, beginning in 2023. A bill signed just last month will allocate $135 million for child care and early childhood education.
In Kremmling, the West Grand School District opened the West Grand Early Childhood Center (WGECC) in 2019, adding five licensed infant and 10 toddler spaces in a community the State considers to be a “day-care desert.” The Center has since remodeled, expanding
its capacity to a total of 25 spots.
But in a recent presentation on “The State of Early Childhood in Grand County,” Hale pointed out that the efforts are not enough.
Hale reported that there are 259 licensed slots in Grand County for children under the age of five, provided by nine child care centers and two family child care homes. With an estimated population of 672 children under five, the county can only serve 39% of those children with licensed care–62% of preschoolers, 34% of toddlers, and only 19% of infants.
And that is if all of the providers are open, fully staffed, and operating at capacity.
Both of Kremmling’s child care centers are closed for the summer, leaving only a single home-based provider offering licensed care in the town.
The Kremmling Preschool has always closed for the summer, and parents have had to work around that schedule. The WGECC was meant to complement the Preschool’s schedule, offering care for students outside of class hours and year-round, full-time care for other infants and toddlers in the community.
But WGECC Director Rhonda Ilgner says that, as she was preparing for the Center’s first summer program, looking to hire staff to operate with full numbers, “nobody came to apply for the job.” After advertising in local papers, on Facebook, on the District site, the WGECC site, and various job sites, there was not a single applicant.
Hale explains that, although many don’t realize it, licensed early childhood professionals are “highly, highly specialized.”
Minimum requirements for an assistant teacher in Colorado, working in a classroom with another teacher, include a background
check and fingerprinting; 15 hours of pre-service training a year; current CPR, First Aid, and Medical Administration certifications; and other training around lesson planning, curriculum development, or more.
A lead teacher must hold a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree in an applicable field or a Child Development Associate credential, all of which require hundreds of hours of education. Ongoing education and other basic trainings can often be 10- or 15-day programs.
And then, Hale continues, early childhood teachers can only look forward to inadequate compensation. She reports that the average pay for a lead teacher in Grand County is $16.50 an hour or $33,000 a year, and the average pay for an assistant early childhood teacher is $14.25 an hour or $28,500 a year.
Local fast-food restaurants are paying more.
But as the child care industry competes with other employers, Hale stresses that “other employers need these positions to be filled
so they can fill their positions. For every teacher we hire, we can create eight child care slots, allowing up to 16 parents to go to work.”
And that child care, she presented, has a significant impact on children, families, and the community. It means “immediate increased earnings for the family and, later on, the child. This can break the cycle of poverty for families while generating more tax revenue for communities.”
Christina Oxley, of Colorado’s Northwest Region Workforce Development, indicates the same reasons–stringent teacher requirements and low industry pay–as being at the crux of the early childhood educator shortage. She then notes that COVID-19 exacerbated the situation.
Oxley says that 4 million women left the American workforce during COVID-19 shutdowns and that, as of last month, 2 million have not returned. She explains that it was disproportionately women who stayed home when child care centers closed and schools went to remote learning.
“Businesses are desperate for workers,” Oxley states. “We would love to see those 2 million women return to work. But they need viable options. Lack of affordable and available child care is a greater barrier than ever. And the impact on the economy is vast.”
Indeed, Oxley has raised another compounding factor–the high cost of early childhood care.
“Low-income persons or those on public assistance could likely find work right now,” she emphasizes, “but three-quarters of their wages would go to child care expenses. (…) The workforce issues are really converging into a no-win situation.”
Grand County has the fifth most expensive child care in the state, according to Hale. She says that year-round, full-time care for preschoolers is upwards of $10,000 a year and the cost for infants is over $13,000 a year. “For a young family, they’re looking at an annual cost of care that is more than some public universities. And they have nine months to get that money together, as opposed to 18 years.”
All three women agree that newer legislation and dedicated funds are a good step toward helping the situation. With the State now supplementing all-day kindergarten and with steps toward supplementing some pre-school education, the period during which working parents must pay for child care is shortening.
Previous hurdles around business creation and teacher education are coming down as well.
Hale indicates that new State monies will be available to help potential centers become licensed, implement needed capital improvements, and purchase materials.
Ilgner emphasizes that there are lots of opportunities now for those who would like to become credentialed. She says that there are scholarship opportunities and other funding available and that she will work with Grand Beginnings and any chosen applicant for the West Grand Early Childhood Center to get them on a path to financial assistance and certification.
Ilgner is excited about all the fully-staffed center will be able to provide for the community, including economic support, family well-being, mental health support, and more on top of their primary charge of providing high-quality early childhood care and development–a service proven to increase school readiness and social-emotional skills, to decrease the need for special education and the use of juvenile and human services, and to improve a child’s future educational options and career earnings.
For more information about Colorado Workforce Development, including career counseling and training and job listings for job seekers, go to cdle.colorado.gov/wfc or call the Frisco Workforce Center at 970-668-5360.
For more information on Grand Beginnings and available resources for families, child care providers, and early childhood opportunities, go to GrandBeginnings.org.
And for more information about the West Grand Early Childhood Center, including job opportunities, enrollment assistance, or early childhood questions, go to wgsd.us or contact Rhonda Ilgner at 970-724-0271 or [email protected]