Before-school child care options shrink in North Dakota as staff shortage wears on
The YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties discontinued its morning care in schools and at its Fercho and Schlossman sites this fall, leaving some families scrambling for other options.
FARGO — Families in the Fargo area that need before-school care for their children have seen their options dwindle this fall as a child care worker shortage drags on.
Multiple child care facilities have discontinued morning care, most often utilized by parents whose jobs require them to start before their child’s school day begins.
This fall, the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties cut its morning care that was originally provided starting at 6:30 a.m. at school-based sites in Fargo and West Fargo and at the Y’s Fercho and Schlossman locations in Fargo, from which children would be transported to their local schools.
Tania Zerr, executive director of the Y’s Learning Center, said approximately 150 children were impacted when the programming was cut at West Fargo elementary schools and at Horace Mann, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Madison and McKinley elementary schools in Fargo.
“Our ability to staff that just was nonexistent,” she said. “Something had to give.”
A facility formerly known as WeeKare ChildKare, at 2302 30 ½ Ave. S. in Fargo, previously offered before-school care. After its purchase by Juniors Center for Children a few months ago, it no longer does.
Jared Dobler, lead teacher at Juniors, which also has a center at 1714 Main Ave. in Fargo, said the discontinuation had more to do with licensing.
Whatever the reason, parents are left with fewer options.
Zerr said some have to recruited relatives or friends or team up with other families in the neighborhood to keep an eye on their children before school.
Robin Nelson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Red River Valley, said the cuts mean they are the only large provider left in the area doing school-age morning care.
Their service, offered in 10 elementary schools in Fargo, begins at 6:45 a.m. and runs until the start of the school day.
Nelson said a few of the schools affected by the Y's discontinuation of morning programming are asking Boys and Girls Clubs to step in.
“Parents are clearly in a panic,” Nelson said.
The problem is not confined to the eastern side of the state.
Erin Laverdure, board president at Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care in Hazen, about 70 miles northwest of Bismarck, said they’ve trimmed hours as well due to lack of staff.
The center is opening 90 minutes later and closing 90 minutes earlier than it previously did.
“I think everybody is holding their breath … hoping it really is temporary,” Laverdure said.
'The worst year'
By this date most years, the Y would have hired around 60 new employees for its fall child care programming; this year, they’ve hired about 20, Zerr said.
She needs about 30 part-time employees to make things work, so she spends a good part of her day figuring out how many staff are available and how many children will be in attendance, making sure they're covered within licensing regulations.
When she comes up short, Zerr often relies on other Y employees in membership and marketing departments, for example, and management staff to fill the gaps, meaning they also must go through background checks and licensing requirements in advance.
Prior to before-school care being cut, Y managers also filled in as drivers, transporting kids from Y sites to schools due to a shortage of bus drivers, a problem that’s afflicted many local schools.
Nelson said Boys and Girls Clubs is "seriously considering" taking on those sites left without before-school care.
However, it could take time to re-license those spaces, probably 90 days minimum, she said, as two providers cannot offer services in the same space.
“Even if we did the mornings and the Y did the afternoons, that would not work for licensing regulations,” Nelson said.
Zerr has spent 26 years at the Y and said these staffing challenges have made 2022 “by far the worst year” of her career.
She has always loved her job and loved having an impact on the community.
“We always strived for the best, and I always wanted my name attached to that. And now with where we're sitting? Wow, that's hard to maintain,” she said.
Desperate measures and compromises
The discontinuation of the YMCA’s before-school care in the F-M area isn’t the only loss being felt by families related to the child care workforce shortage.
Some child care centers in North Dakota have made cuts in other ways, including closing their doors one day a week.
Verla Jung, community engagement coordinator for Child Care Aware of North Dakota, an agency that provides referrals to licensed child care options, said the changes are making parents scramble.
“If you're closed one day a week, that's 52 more days I've got to find some substitute care, stay home or miss work,” Jung said.
Chelsey Steinlicht, owner of Bright Futures Learning Center in Fargo, said she has “slimmed down” after-school child care at her two locations because she’s down one driver to transport kids.
The center no longer transports children from Kennedy Elementary in Fargo and Independence Elementary in West Fargo to its locations, she said.
Because of the child care crunch, some families are also trying desperate measures or making decisions that could compromise child safety.
Steinlicht said she took a call from a parent who offered to pay child care fees a half-year in advance, in six-month increments, in a failed attempt to persuade her to take their child, even though Bright Futures had no openings.
And instead of going to after-school day care, in some cases children may be going home on the bus to an empty house when they are not an appropriate age for that, Steinlicht said.
How to fix child care workforce shortfall?
Like in Fargo-Moorhead, parents whose kids attend Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care in Hazen are leaning on friends and neighbors and adjusting work hours when possible to deal with reduced hours.
“Our families work at clinics, they work at the power plants, they work at the coal mine … a lot of places that get up and running bright and early,” Laverdure said.
Energy Cooperative Child Care has started offering free child care to those who work there, hoping that will attract new employees and allow them to go back to their normal hours.
Gov. Doug Burgum announced a framework for legislation on Sept. 13, promising an “injection” of financial help to address the availability, affordability and quality of child care services across the state.
The proposal would connect families to child care, expand child care availability, add tax credit initiatives, expand the model of public and private partnerships and help with investment into child care centers.
It’s expected to be refined for introduction to the state Legislature in January 2023, Burgum said.
The proposal was said to have received bipartisan support, but some were displeased with critical needs that were left out.
Nelson said she’s disappointed the governor’s proposal does not address the operation or sustainability of school-age child care in the state.
Others were critical of a failure to address the child care workforce shortfall.
Low pay for child care work is a perpetual problem in the state, Jung said, with the average employee making a little over $11 an hour while not receiving health insurance coverage or retirement benefits.
The child care industry needs an infusion of funding, she said, not just COVID-19 money, stabilization grants or other temporary measures, which have already been spent.
“It has to be subsidized somehow by the state, because it's a workforce issue. Other businesses cannot work if there’s no child care,” Jung said.