A crisis of care: ‘There’s always something’
Stringent requirements, high costs precede opening a child care facility in Garfield County
Editor’s note: This is the third of four stories focusing on the challenges parents and guardians face in finding adequate child care in Garfield County. Read the first part, “No winners in Western Slope’s child care dilemma” and the second part, “Family, Friends and Neighbors in Need“ at PostIndependent.com Part four focuses focuses on potential solutions and will publish Monday.
Colorado parents are likely to pay more for child care than they would for college tuition.
Costing an average of $11,140 per year, college tuition in Colorado is cheaper than the $15,600 parents typically pay for center-based child care, according to Child Care Aware of America.
Garfield County Department of Human Services data show 59 licensed child care centers serving 1,553 children 5 years and younger in Garfield County. On the flipside, there are at least 3,985 children of the same age group who live here, according to a 2019 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Unsurprisingly, Early Childhood Network Executive Director Kelly Esch said local child care facilities are at capacity.
This means over half of children age 5 and younger in Garfield County might be raised in a nontraditional child care setting.
The Early Childhood Network, an organization that connects families and children to licensed child care facilities in Eagle and Garfield counties, can only accommodate once a new spot opens.
Esch speculated a couple major reasons why finding child care has become so difficult. Colorado’s rising population, inflation woes and erratic COVID-19 protocols have led to yet another worker shortage, she said.
“We lost so many teachers from all these extra stressors,” Esch said. “So, having a qualified workforce is extremely difficult.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers across Colorado make an average yearly salary of $27,140-$38,590.
Esch, who has two kids, said she’s personally paying about $50 per child, per day, while she and her husband work full-time.
“It’s over $20,000 a year we’re paying in child care.”
Esch, who’s been in child care services since 2005, said the majority of a human brain’s development happens in earlier years of life, which is why it’s important Colorado further improve policy to replenish the qualified workforce, bring down costs and increase the number of child care centers and homes.
One move is relaxing the credentials needed to become a certified child care provider, which some child care providers and experts worry could lower quality care. Other legislative proposals include tax relief for nonprofit childcare services, a $500 income tax credit for childhood educators and a statewide scholarship to train prospective child care service providers.
“The state has actually redesigned qualifications on how somebody can be qualified, and adapting it so people can find easier ways to become an early childhood teacher,” Esch said.
In 2021, Colorado lawmakers passed an act that classified child care homes as residences, which essentially allows child care homes to now operate in all zones of a municipality.
Gov. Jared Polis seeks to add at least 1,000 new service providers to the workforce. With the way efforts look like right now, Esch said it’s encouraging.
“I’m very hopeful that, with all this funding coming through, teachers are going to feel supported and get the education they need and deserve,” she said. “They’ll have a lot more opportunities available to them, which then, in turn, means happy children.”
Juan Alvarado is worried about his business.
“I don’t have too many customers,” he said. “I don’t have too many kids.”
Alvarado owns and operates Peter Pan y sus Amigos Preschool LLC in Rifle, which opened Nov. 2, 2021.
Alvarado originally worked for a childcare business in El Jebel. Opening his own child care center, however, meant venturing westward in order to reduce costs.
Rentals in El Jebel cost $6,000-$7,000 in monthly rent, Alvarado said. Such high costs likely meant Alvarado would have to charge $75-$85 a day per child. So, Alvarado decided to purchase a location in Rifle.
Now paying a mortgage of $1,800 monthly, he charges $55 daily per child, he said.
Parents who can’t fully afford child care services can apply for assistance through the Colorado Department of Human Services.
To open a child care facility in Garfield County, Alvarado’s first stop was the Garfield County Department of Human Services’ Office of Early Childhood. There are two kinds of designated facilities: A licensed child care center and a licensed family child care home.
Under Colorado law, a family child care home is defined as an operation that offers less than 24-hour care for up to six children in a residential setting. Four of those kids cannot be related.
A child care center, meanwhile, provides care for more children in a designated non-residential building. Depending on the size of the operation, a center is allowed to care for 5-15 children or 16 or more.
There are just two licensing exemptions. A home care provider who watches up to four kids at a time or less, or direct family members watching kids are not required to be licensed.
Garfield County Department of Human Services Child Care Program Manager Rebecca Romeyn said obtaining a license “takes awhile.”
“There’s a process that sort of takes folks through the basic nuts and bolts of providing a healthy and safe environment for kiddos to be nurtured throughout the day,” she said.
For Alvarado, he needed to submit application forms, complete a slew of training requirements, pass a background check then schedule licensing inspections. Licensing fees for child care centers range from $175-$300 depending on the amount of children.
Meanwhile, Romeyn said the application process takes 60-90 days to complete.
Inspections range from meeting childproofing, nutrition and guidance strategy requirements and more.
In addition to passing these inspections, it became particularly difficult for Alvarado and fellow child care operators when in-person procedures were disrupted by COVID-19 precautions.
Inspections were conducted not just by the county’s child care program but the city of Rifle, the health department and the local fire department, Alvarado said.
Romeyn, who’s been in Garfield County since 2004, also said there has always been a rising need for child care for years. Child care costs are high, providers don’t make strong wages and many times providers are having to live on their spouse’s benefits, she said.
Then there is the challenge of finding child care that works with a parent’s schedule. It’s even more difficult to find care when parents work 10-12-hour shifts.“We have families that are living in Rifle or Parachute and commuting to Aspen, and if their kiddos are in care down valley, there’s an expectation that family child care providers will be open 10 or more hours a day,” she said. “And that’s one person providing care frequently.”
Alvarado, who operates a small child care center, is one of these people.
“There’s always something,” Alvarado said.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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