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Rural Iowa is experiencing a child care shortage. Local providers say it's complicated

The Oskaloosa Herald - 10/27/2023

Oct. 26—Child care in rural Iowa is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place, forced to balance the need to pay employees competitive wages as they work demanding jobs and the responsibility of keeping child care affordable to those who need it most.

Grants help. During the pandemic, federal funding was a lifeline for centers that were struggling to remain open and available for child care while the nation was locking down. But now that several of those pandemic-era programs have recently come to an end, child care centers have been left scrambling to compensate for the nationwide loss of billions of dollars in federal funding.

The child care program offered by the Mahaska County YMCA is planning to turn to its community donors, YMCA members and participating families to help fill in the funding gap left by the approximately $500,000 in COVID relief money that it received during the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

"That's the plan, is to ask our community to support the child care needs at a higher rate," says Mahaska County YMCA CEO Barry Martin. "And that's the voluntary donations, not federal funds, state funds, whatever. That's us going to our community and saying 'We have a need, we can't afford to pay what we need. We can't afford to keep child care running at a loss. We need your help to bridge that gap between what we're subsidizing and what it actually costs us.'"

Because of Department of Human Services requirements, child care centers must maintain a certain child-to-staff ratio, making the balancing act between staff wages and child care affordability a challenging priority. Kathy Chamra, interim director of child care for the YMCA's program, says that the issue is multifaceted and that the situation is not at all unique to the Mahaska County YMCA.

"That requires taking a look at the community," she says. "Not only the people that live in the community, but the businesses as well ... Is there more support out there from the businesses than we've had in the past? ... We have a huge waitlist, but yet we can't serve more people because of staffing issues. In other words, trying to keep staff on board ... Part of this is trying to figure out how can you pay livable wages to your staff while providing child care at a reasonable rate so parents will be able to afford it. And that's exactly where all child care centers are at. Not just us, all child care centers."

COVID relief money, when it was available, was partially used to fund payroll. Now its absence is adding another wrinkle. Martin says that the center has experienced difficulties retaining workers, losing quality staff to higher-paying jobs outside of the child care industry.

"Nonprofit and for-profit are [learning] that exact same equation," he says. "It's a teeter-totter or the scales. You can charge what you need to charge and be a profitable child care center, but you're only going to be serving people who can afford child care, right? And then, so where does that leave the people who can't afford to pay what is costs to run child care? Well, that leaves them without. And then, well, what does that do to our community? What does that do to our economy? What does that do to everything?"

"The folks who do child care are highly talented, and they're highly dedicated people, but we have people who leave us as a preschool teacher to go work in a grain silo because they're going to make three, four, five dollars an hour more," Martin adds. "So our society is putting, you know, more resources behind grain silo workers than they are behind child care workers. So we've got to reprioritize and figure out how do we go about keeping good teachers, good employees in child care, so that we're not losing them to grain silos, Wal-Mart...you know, you work fast food for more than what you can make as a preschool teacher. It's difficult."

The YMCA's current waitlist for child care as of Oct. 11 is 82. Families are contacted monthly for a review of their status on the list. Martin says that most on the list are seeking child care for infants and toddlers. The center serves children ranging from infancy to four years old.

Further complicating the equation is the tendency for staff-to-child ratios to bottleneck as children progress through the child care program.

"I'm not sure we can quantify how long it takes to get off of that waitlist," Martin says. "It depends on the age of the child and the space that we have available in each [age group]. Because you group the kids by their age, so infants, one-year-olds, two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds. So we may have, I don't know, four spots available in infants, but none available in one-year-olds, and so what that does for you, is if you try to add those four infants, when they turn one year old you have nowhere to put them, right? So then your one-year-olds are sitting here waiting for the two-year-olds to move up to three, your threes and so on down the line. Your bottleneck happens when you can't move the kids."

"Part of the reason for the waiting list is just the age group of the kids and where we have to move them when they age up," he adds. "Part of it is the staffing issue. Can we find enough teachers to put into the rooms to add those kids at all levels? So it's almost like you have to find, every time you need a teacher because you've got x number of kids waiting to get in, it's not just a teacher, you need four teachers so that that whole classroom has someplace to go."

Managing the center's waitlist can feel like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle, Chamra says. Employees have to anticipate which families are going to continue to need services further down the line for subsequent children.

"It's difficult to explain to people, because 'Well, you've got an empty slot here. Let's go ahead and fill it.' Well, there could be somebody who's pregnant, and their child is just about ready to leave that infant room to go into the one-year-old room. Well, if I put somebody in there, I've got a pregnant person waiting to get in. You just can't throw kids in a room. You have to strategically—it's like a big jigsaw puzzle, and you have to put it up on the board, and you have to look at it. 'So who's going to go here? Who's going to go here?' Because we have to meet standards," she says.

The DHS has one set of standards that centers are required to meet in order to be licensed, and there are still more besides, including the new Iowa Quality for Kids, or IQ4K standards.

Chamra says that, while it isn't necessarily expensive to become licensed, keep licensure, and by extension funding, can be a challenge because of high state standards.

"Those regulation guidelines, because of our society, because of how ... children have been treated in the past, in terms of safety, and education and so forth, those ... standards coming down from the state level are high," she says.

Maintaining quality standards requires having quality staff. Hiring and retaining quality staff requires being able to pay quality wages. Quality wages require quality funding, and quality funding requires maintaining quality standards. It's a tricky circle to navigate, made more complicated by the recent expiration of COVID funding programs like child care stabilization grants.

The advent of public school district preschool programs adds another element to navigate. Infants and toddlers cost more money to care for than three- and four-year-olds. As three- and four-year-old half-day and all-day programs become increasingly available, the financial strain on child care centers increases as their age demographics shift. They are providing only before and after preschool child care, or wraparound care, for their older children more and more.

Chamra says it requires close work with the school districts to coordinate a healthy balance.

"The economics of it is where it really gets tricky," Martin says. "There's a difference between ratios and capacities. We might have capacity for, I don't know, 16 infants, for instance. But we only have three infant teachers, so our ratio will only allow us to take 12 infants, whereas the capacity is 16. So we could add four if we had another teacher. Same thing with any age group. So you can only take as many kids as you have teachers that will let you stay in that ratio, even if your capacity is higher than that. So you might have an empty classroom because you can't find a teacher to put in there."

Channing Rucks can be reached at crucks@oskyherald.com.

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