Child care is a critical part of Montana’s economic recovery from COVID-19 as more parents return to work. But some providers have closed permanently and others are struggling, adding to an already dire shortage. Recently released federal funding may only provide short term relief as the state faces a child care crisis.
Liz Shults runs Learn n Play Child Care in Belgrade.
“Today is the first day back with children since ... Mar. 24 was my last day open,” Shults says.
Before COVID-19 ramped up in Montana, Shults provided care for 11 kids under the age of five. She says that number started dropping during the stay at home order.
“Because either parents were working from home or not working so I was down to two children at that point and said I’m not going to keep doing this,” Shults says.
She temporarily closed her doors and gave parents the option of paying what they could to help keep the business afloat, but she says it’s been tough.
Unemployment payments for self employed Montanans impacted by COVID-19 only opened up about two weeks ago, and Shults says her application is still being processed.
She says she was relieved last Thursday when the state opened the application portal for over $10 million of federal assistance. It’s earmarked for Montana child care providers, low income children and emergency temporary child care for essential workers.
As a licensed group provider, Shults could receive $5,000, which she says would cover close to a month of her normal expenses as a business.
“We applied and we can get it now, but I don’t know how long it will take to physically get the money,” Shults says.
Danica Jamison, President and CEO of Greater Gallatin United Way says some providers closed permanently as they waited weeks for the funding to open up. She says the grants will help in the short term, but the state is facing a crisis if more funding doesn’t become available soon.
“If we want to make sure the most vulnerable children and the most vulnerable parents and employees are able to get back to work and that kids have a safe place to be, we need to open up emergency child care programs across the state as quickly as possible,” Jamison says.
She says that would require an additional $25 million in funding in the short term and a push for public funding in the long term.
Before COVID-19, Montana had capacity for 40 percent of the kids who needed care. Jamison says that number will only be exacerbated as some providers are forced to close in the fallout of the pandemic.
“We are facing a catastrophic child care issue for families, for kids, for businesses and for our whole community that relies on businesses reopening,” Jamison says.
With limits on the number of kids at child care facilities and fewer programs and camps, Jamison says medium and large providers are bringing in less income while parents face fewer options as they start to go back to work.
Parents already pay more for infant care than in-state tuition at Montana State University, and yet the median income for child care workers is around $20,000 a year according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
“We should not be putting this solution of how to make affordable, quality child care on the providers alone or on parents alone. It demands a community collective response that needs federal and state and local dollars, business dollars, pitching in,” Jamison says.
Tori Sproles is the provider services coordinator at Child Care Connections, a nonprofit that offers training and resources to providers and referrals to parents in Gallatin, Park, Meagher, Broadwater, Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark counties.
She says the COVID-19 pandemic has shown child care is an essential service.
“If we weren't providing care for some of these children, then the nurses, the doctors, the first responders, all these people couldn't be doing their jobs, and so honestly, that’s where my mind is going is that I’m hoping this gives us some conversation pieces around the importance of child care,” Sproles says.
Sproles says more than half of the nearly 190 programs that Child Care Connections serves closed during the stay at home order. Five were permanent closures.
As the rest have started reopening, Sproles says she and her team have been pooling resources to supply providers with personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. They’ve also been offering recommendations to help providers operate in accordance with public health guidelines.
She says the governor’s recent announcement about small business stabilization grants could help some providers make it through the months ahead.