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Rural parents facing child care deserts as pandemic makes bad situation worse
AP

Rural parents facing child care deserts as pandemic makes bad situation worse

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Abdi Daisane, owner of Blooming Kids Child Care Center in St. Cloud. During the pandemic, daily attendance has dropped from 150 kids to 30 kids. (Star Tribune/TNS)

ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Finding a new child care provider has become a frustrating routine for middle school teacher Megan Dolan.

"He's on his third daycare in less than a year," said Dolan, 29, who lives outside of Becker with her husband.

After their 2-year-old son's child care provider closed in May, they found another in-home daycare about a mile away from their house. But it was too good to be true — that provider told the Dolans in December she was soon closing.

Finding William's next provider was an exhaustive feat that required a spreadsheet and three weeks time. It was made even more complicated by the couple's plans for baby No. 2.

Dolan said she called every licensed provider in both Becker and Clear Lake. "I had to ask all of them when their next infant opening is — and there were some that were two years out."

Dolan's experience is increasingly common, especially in rural parts of the state, which threatens any post-pandemic economic recovery and the long-term stability of the communities that are in greatest need of child care.

Last year Minnesota lost more than 4,000 licensed family child care spaces — most of them in Greater Minnesota — as the pandemic made an already difficult situation worse.

The number of in-home day cares in the state has been shrinking for decades, and there is little reason to expect a resurgence. Child care centers, which are often more expensive, have proliferated largely in urban areas to take their place. But establishing and maintaining a profitable child care center — or often even a break-even one — in a sparsely populated area is difficult without help from governments, nonprofits or businesses, according to a recent report from the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development.

"In rural areas the economics don't work as well for centers without extra effort and some kind of intervention," said Marnie Werner, vice president for research at the center. "But family providers keep leaving, so we are left with child care deserts."

Dolan was lucky to find another in-home provider about 10 miles away that had recently opened. The only other option was 30 miles out of the way on her route to work.

COVID-19 continued to convolute plans for Dolan and her husband, who had already burned through their paid time off watching William when he was between child care providers.

"He was only there for a week and then she had to close for two weeks because one of her family members had COVID," Dolan said. "We had to try to piece it together the best that we could and try to find any relatives we could to watch him."

Providers strugglingThe pandemic has caused the state's child care crisis to cut two ways: — with a tanked economy, school-aged children at home and virus fears, many parents have stopped looking for care altogether.

That has left providers like Abdi Daisane operating well below capacity even as many parents scramble to find care.

In recent months, Daisane's Blooming Kids Child Care Center in St. Cloud has averaged about 30 kids. On Friday, there were 12.

"Some centers ... closed down for good because they just couldn't continue to operate with only six kids, seven kids, 10 kids. You cannot sustain with only that many kids," he said.

Paradoxically, central Minnesota has the greatest need for more child care slots among Greater Minnesota regions. The Center for Rural Policy and Development said as of Dec. 31, 2020, more than 15,000 spaces are needed to meet demand, while the rest of the state outside the Twin Cities metro needs about 23,000 more. The Twin Cities needs 51,000 more licensed daycare slots to catch up to demand, though capacity there has not dropped nearly as drastically as the rest of Minnesota.

"Child care and housing are the biggest obstacles to filling jobs in Greater Minnesota," Werner said.

Since opening in 2018, Daisane has saved a little money to help cushion the business due to the high overhead costs of child care: rent for a large space, utility bills to keep the space comfortable for children, staffing to keep the required student-to-staff ratios and food for the children.

"All of those things add up really quick," Daisane said.

Still, he's hopeful for the future of his business.

"If (the pandemic) stops and kids start going back to daycare and parents start going back to work, then we will pull it off," he said. "If day cares survived in 2020, they will survive in 2021 — if things get better."

Looking for solutionsLegislators and advocates are increasingly pitching child care investments as an economic necessity to win support for increased aid.

The federal COVID-19 bailout package recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives contains $50 billion in child care aid that Sen. Tina Smith said would especially benefit mothers of young children who have been kept out of the workforce during the pandemic.

"Child care is part of the basic economic infrastructure we need, just like transportation and housing," Smith said at a recent news conference. "It is a system that is just not functioning the way it needs to."

State Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, has pitched $24 million in grants to help start or grow child care programs.

"No matter how many jobs we create, the inability for families to access child care will continue to be in the way of parents entering the workforce," she said in a statement.

But providers and others say the system needs an overhaul, not just patches to get through the pandemic.

"Is it a business? Is it a school? Right now child care operates like a highly regulated private business or a very underfunded public school," Werner said. Her group recommends policymakers address unintended consequences in regulations; boost subsidies for low-income families; and allow for creativity and "experimentation" in child care models and private-public partnerships.

"We have an opportunity to have a real impact on our child care crisis if we can just reach out and grab it," Werner said.

Lynn Haglin has been working on child care in northeastern Minnesota for years, and often brings up the cost her son and daughter-in-law pay for two children to attend a child care center in the Twin Cities: $31,000 a year.

"People talk in generalities but don't always understand — expensive really means expensive," said Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation. "That shouldn't be put upon providers as a negative, because they have to live too."

Haglin said providers need to pay staff well to prevent turnover and help foster lasting relationships with children. Aid for families who need help accessing care needs ongoing support, and partnerships need to be explored to find new ways of delivering care, she said.

Haglin is hopeful the pandemic has sparked lasting interest in addressing the state's deep child care needs.

"We are hearing more and more bipartisan support in recognition of how critical child care is, and I think that's a real positive," Haglin said. "It's about realizing this is an economic issue and not just a child care issue — it's affecting everybody and everything in our communities."

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