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Childcare challenges

New funds give providers leg up in pandemic

Avery Richter pours pretend tea as childcare worker Katie Fulop joins in the play Friday at ABC Child Care Center. Jill Schramm/MDN

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for North Dakota’s childcare providers as they attempt to address a waiting list of families needing services. However, the pandemic also has resulted in new federal funding to address childcare challenges, including pre-existing concerns exacerbated by the pandemic.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services has distributed $48.88 million in support to 1,004 childcare providers so far. Now the state has more than $100 million in additional funds from the federal COVID-19 response and recovery package that are dedicated to the childcare sector.

Last month, the Department of Human Services announced several new grant programs to help stabilize the financial operations of providers and support the health and safety of children and staff.

“That’s going to be a really big deal,” said KarlaRae Sivertson, president of the Child Care Association of Minot. “I don’t want to have to raise my rates because the cost of everything is going up. That will help curtail having to raise rates. Because I do have some pregnant moms, that will help in having some extra money to hire some help if I need it. It just would make things a lot easier, I know, for a lot of us.”

“We have five grants that are available to programs right now,” said Kay Larson, director of the Early Childhood Division at DHS. “One of them is called the stabilization grant, and that’s to help promote stable and sustained operation of child care and communities across North Dakota, including added support to underserved areas for infant-toddler care and care during non-traditional hours.”

A North Dakota KIDS Count report released last August emphasized the need for more care during non-traditional hours. It found only 3% of licensed programs are open during the weekends, 4% open during evenings and 25% open during early morning hours.

The stabilization grants funds also can be used for personnel costs, rent, utility and facility maintenance and insurance costs, for personal protective equipment, cleaning, for any equipment or supplies needed to operate, including some past expenses. Money can be used for mental health services for staff and for children.

Other available grants target technology improvement, inclusive environments for children with developmental disabilities and startup operations.

As of this week, DHS had received 1,106 applications, including 586 for the stabilization grant, 443 for health and safety and technology grants, 47 for startup grants and 20 for inclusion grants, Larson said. The department also will be issuing quality improvement grants to support early childhood programs that achieve Bright and Early North Dakota State quality ratings.

Larson said the number of childcare providers and slots in North Dakota remain similar to before the pandemic.

That’s despite a rough patch. According to Child Care Aware of North Dakota, multiple closures of child care facilities occurred when the pandemic started, due to low child counts, fear of the virus and positive COVID-19 cases impacting staff and children. Some closed permanently. Kids Count listed a net loss of 60 licensed childcare providers and 381 slots during the pandemic.

Although numbers look better today, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the same availability of care as pre-pandemic.

“One thing that we know is that, obviously, for childcare programs, staffing was a challenge before the pandemic and it remains to be a challenge. They are in the market to compete with all the other employers for workforce and struggle to make it affordable for families, and so we have a sense that some of our centers maybe aren’t running at that 100% capacity, just due to staffing,” Larson said.

The Kids Count report, based on the previous year’s activity, showed the supply of child care and early education met only 88% of demand. Fourteen counties were below 60% of demand, including McKenzie (43%), McLean (49%), Renville (49%) and Williams (46%). Ward County is at 73%.

“There’s always waiting lists in Minot,” Sivertson said. Infant spots are hard to come by, but special needs is also an area of concern, she said. Providers often have difficulty in providing slots for special-needs children because they lack training or the equipment, although the latest state grant program will help address equipment needs, she said.

In addition, Sivertson said, uncertainties still surround the potential for additional positive COVID-19 cases among staff, children or families.

During the pandemic, some providers lost income when families withdrew, and some had to let some staff go, she said. The state’s required staff-to-child ratios also increased for a time, limiting the number of children a provider could serve.

“It really was a financial burden for a bunch of us,” Sivertson said.

“During the pandemic, the department recognized early on that childcare was crucial to support the state’s pandemic response and the needs of working families,” Larson said. “So we invested federal pandemic relief to support childcare providers and working parents and to help address that operating cost issue and changes in childcare program enrollment. We offered childcare emergency operating grants from April to December of 2020. That helped childcare providers stay in operation as they faced fluctuating attendance and worked to adopt the modified operating practices that we had in place at that time.”

DHS also invested a portion of federal pandemic relief dollars in reducing the economic burden of childcare costs for families with modest incomes, Larson said. On average, families pay between $7,600 and $9,500 per year for child care, similar to in-state tuition at a public university, according to Kids Count.

North Dakota’s childcare assistance program has temporarily removed the requirement that participating families cover a portion of the cost of care. It now makes assistance available for parents seeking employment as well as working or attending school.

“A family of three can earn up to $4,372 a month and qualify for childcare assistance. We really encourage families to learn more about the options for help and apply for childcare assistance,” Larson said.

Families can apply online at www.applyforhelp.nd.gov or at their local human service zone offices.

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