Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Child-Care Gaps Continue to Strain Colorado Families

While some pandemic-related gaps and inequities in child-care access have been resolved, high cost and low availability continue to strain families across the state, creating barriers for many trying to return to the workforce.

children jumping on a trampoline
Colleen Duke, left, holds her youngest daughter Harper, 9 months, as she smiles with her daughter Mandolin, 2, as Duke's two other kids Elise, 11, and Donovan, 14, jump on the trampoline at their home in Georgetown on April 23, 2023. Colleen and her husband Sean, who both work, have had trouble finding childcare for their youngest two children during the week.
(Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/TNS)
(TNS) — The coronavirus pandemic, with its economic and social upheavals, underlined the country’s gaps and inequities in wages, health care, housing, education and child care.

But while some pandemic-related problems have eased or improved, the price and availability of child care continue to create strains for families in Colorado and across the country as they strive to gain back ground.

At the same time, educators and advocates say the needs highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic have prompted states and the federal government to provide more funding for things like child care. They see more awareness about how the lack of options for children and families can reverberate through communities and the economy.

Clear Creek County Commissioner George Marlin has seen the effects when families are forced to juggle making a living with taking care of their children. The county has teamed up with the school and recreation districts, nonprofits and residents to open a child care center in what will be a grade school in a renovated building in Idaho Springs.

The project isn’t just about employers being able to recruit and retain workers or keeping the economy rolling, Marlin said. “We’re trying to make our community the kind of place that families want to live in and raise their children in.”

However, parents talk about anxiously waiting for calls from child care centers where they have put their names on waiting lists. There are about 75,000 more children in Colorado under 6 whose parents are working than there are licensed day care spots, according to the Bell Policy Center.

And the cost of child care in Colorado ranks among the most expensive in the country. The organization Child Care Aware listed Colorado in the top five least affordable states for toddler and infant care in 2017 and in the top 10 in 2020.

Colleen Duke of Georgetown said while cost is an obstacle, so is just finding a child care center that will take new kids. The one licensed facility in Clear Creek has no room for her daughters, one 9 months old and the other 2.

“I’ve reached out to surrounding counties: Summit, Gilpin and Jefferson. All their child care waiting lists are either a year or they won’t even add you,” Duke said.

Duke, who has two older children, wants to work more hours at her beauty business to help her family financially. But no available child care means she stays home with her daughters during the week. She sometimes has a babysitter on Fridays, but typically opens her shop on the weekends when her husband is off work.

“I feel really stressed because I want to provide more for my family. I also want to be home when they’re all home on the weekends,” Duke said.

Mitch Houston is executive director of the Clear Creek Schools Foundation, a volunteer position in which he works with other community members on raising money and planning the child care center in Idaho Springs. Houston said $1.6 million has been raised for the project, expected to cost $4.1 million and to serve 66 children. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Congressman Joe Neguse have submitted requests for $2 million in congressional money earmarked for community programs.

Houston, a former Clear Creek School District RE-1 board member, realizes the importance of adequate child care for employers and employees. He has yet another goal in mind.

“I’m hopeful that it increases the number of our students that are ready for kindergarten,” Houston said.

Laying Bare the Gaps

As COVID-19 swept across the globe, many of the daily routines of life became harder and pre-pandemic challenges became more challenging. The already tough task of finding affordable child care turned tougher. Schools closed and parents who couldn’t work from home scrambled to take care of their kids.

Early Milestones, which advocates for young children, said by the summer of 2020 in Colorado, 10 percent of the child care providers who responded to a survey had closed because of the pandemic. Roughly 10 percent of mothers nationwide left their jobs at some point in 2020 to care for their children, according to a report by The Hamilton Project, an initiative of the Brookings Institution.

Women initially were more affected by the pandemic than men, but recent trends show “a robust recovery for females in Colorado,” said Ryan Gedney principal economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The unemployment rate for women over the past 12 months was 2.5 percent, lower than the 2.9 percent in 2019 and lower than the 3.2 percent rate for men over the past 12 months, Gedney said in an email. Many factors could be driving the recovery, he added. One possibility is the expansion of telework options that might help women balance the family’s child care needs.

Turnover rates in the child care industry is another problem that got worse when COVID-19 hit. A 2021 survey by Early Milestones said almost a quarter of the workforce, disproportionately women of color, was furloughed or laid off during the pandemic. In 2020, 41 percent of all direct-care workers in Colorado relied on public assistance to get by.

“With the pandemic, there’s definitely been a lot of attention on child care and early childhood education. The pandemic highlighted how important it is and (highlighted) the gaps that we have,” said Perrine Monnet, an analyst with the Bell Policy Center.

State and federal governments have steered money to shore up child care programs, keep centers open and assist families. A three-part study released in 2022 by the Bell Policy Center detailed the money for early childhood care and education included in three rounds of federal coronavirus relief.

The state of Colorado has allocated more than $630 million of the funds to child care and education, according to the policy center.

Coming out of the height of the pandemic, the gap in the number of available child care slots narrowed, Monnet said.

In 2019, a survey of 35 states by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that the difference between licensed child care spots in Colorado and the potential number of spots needed, based on children’s ages and their parents’ employment, was roughly 95,000. Colorado’s gap was 38 percent, compared to the average of 31.2 percent.

The potential deficit in spots needed has dropped to about 75,000, Monnet said. A number of factors could explain the decrease.

“We’re seeing more (child care) providers open and we’re also seeing a decrease in the number of children, at least for this year that we’re measuring,” Monnet said.

Various initiatives have helped centers stay open or expand their capacity and have helped new centers start. One of those is the state Emerging and Expanding Child Care Grant Program, established by legislation in 2020.

Colorado’s new universal preschool program will offer 10 to 15 hours a week of tuition-free learning to every 4-year-old the year before they enter kindergarten. The 2022 law implementing the program also created the Department of Early Childhood.

Nearly 25,000 families who applied for the preschool program were matched last week with child care providers, saving each family an average of $6,000 per year, Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement.

The gaps in licensed child care don’t necessarily mean children are foregoing care, Monnet said. Parents will turn to families, friends and neighbors, often referred to as “FFN.”

The FFN option becomes more important in so-called child care deserts, where there are three or more children who are 5 years old or younger for each spot in a licensed program. Monnet said a handful of Colorado counties meet that definition.

The gaps tend to be more severe in rural areas, Monnet added. “But almost every county is considered a child care desert when it comes to licensed infant and toddler care.”

Taking care of infants and toddlers is more expensive for child care centers because the required teacher-to-child ratios are higher.

And child care remains more expensive in Colorado than in other states. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers child care affordable when it accounts for 7 percent or less of a family’s income. Nationally the average spent is 13 percent and in Colorado it is between 16 percent and 27 percent of the household income.

Filling the Gaps

In the spring of 2021, child care problems loomed large for Loryn Duke, the communications director at the Steamboat Ski Resort, and two of her colleagues. Duke had returned to work from maternity leave. Two other women in communications and marketing with children under 3 saw their plans for care fall through.

“We were staring down the barrel of do we have to leave the workforce or how do we make this work?” Duke recalled.

The three women talked to the management, suggesting the resort open its own child care center. Managers agreed. They found a building to rent less than a mile down the road from the base of the ski area. The owners gave the OK for the building to be remodeled.

“It took us 15 months to go from idea to doors open, which is insanely fast,” Duke said.

Fifteen Steamboat employees enrolled their children, leaving 19 spots for children in the community. The resort hired a director with experience who could “hit the ground running,” Duke said.

“The heartbreaking part of it is that when we opened up the community space, we had a wait list of 49 children for just 19 spaces, so it just highlights the need in our community,” Duke said.

To figure out what they needed to do and how to finance the center, resort officials worked with Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC. The business organization teamed up with the Colorado Department of Early Childhood to offer employers a “design lab” to provide technical assistance and guidance on business plans and funding sources.

The ski resort was one of nine employers and organizations to complete the program. Each participant can apply for up to $800,000 in grant money, which the state agency administers.

The Steamboat ski area received a $500,000 matching grant for the child care center. Resort employees with children in the program get a 25 percent discount, estimated to cost the resort around $200,000 a year.

“Child care is really an expensive endeavor. It’s not necessarily a financial win for the resort or almost any business,” Duke said. “But what the resort does win on is recruitment and retention” of employees.

EPIC is offering a second round of the design lab this year. Nicole Riehl, EPIC president and CEO, said 10 out of 26 applicants were chosen for the first round. The projects completed or underway represent about 500 new child care slots, the majority of which will be for infants and toddlers.

The child care center planned for Idaho Springs participated in the program.

Riehl said the design lab advances the work started 13 years ago when business leaders joined forces to champion early childhood and education. The business community realized that investing in children would help build a strong workforce and keep Colorado economically competitive by attracting and retaining the best workers.

The pandemic underscored the importance of affordable, high-quality child care to meet those goals, Riehl said. Through the years, EPIC has campaigned for policies, training and funds to improve early child care and education, she said.

Community Hospital in Grand Junction took part in EPIC’s design lab last year. Construction has started on a child care center on hospital grounds that will accommodate 100 children ages 6 weeks through 6 years old. The hospital plans to open the facility this summer.

“The pandemic certainly highlighted and heightened the need for that when all the schools and child care centers shut down and yet all the health care workers continued to come to work every single day.” said Tawny Espinoza, the hospital’s vice president of business development.

The 7,500-square-foot facility “just steps from the hospital” will cost about $5 million. Community Hospital is using a state child care contribution tax credit, congressional funds, donations and a $800,000 state grant to help finance the project.

Ali Singer, a clinical pharmacist at Community Hospital, and her husband, who is also in health care, waited six months to find a child care center for their son after they moved to Grand Junction. When their daughter was born, they hired a live-in nanny, which was expensive but easier than finding a child care center for an infant.

After the tribulations of looking for a spot for her son, Singer acted quickly for a longer-term solution for her daughter. “We put her on the waitlist the second I got a positive pregnancy test.”

Singer’s daughter, who will be turning 2, attends the same day care center her brother did. Preference is given to siblings of enrollees. Singer isn’t sure whether she’ll switch her daughter to the center at the hospital because she doesn’t want to disrupt her learning. She said a lot of Community Hospital staffers are looking forward to the center’s opening.

“One of my friends who just had a child a couple of weeks ago was considering changing to work (at Community) because of the child care center. They felt like that was a big enough driver to consider changing jobs from one health care center to another,” Singer said.

It Takes a Community

As community members work toward opening a child care center in a former high school in Idaho Springs, now undergoing renovation, another group keeps an eye on opportunities wherever they pop up in Clear Creek County. The nonprofit Expanding Early Care and Learning in Clear Creek County has proposed a former church as a site for a child care center and supported the new owner of the county’s only licensed center, Bearly Tawl Day Care in Evergreen, in her endeavor to keep the program open.

“Our (Expanding Early Care and Learning) board looks at, are there ways we can support people with creative thinking and the resources we know about,” said Laurie Beckel, a former early childhood mental health provider.

“The community is wonderful here, so supportive,” said Olga Hoila, Bearly Tawl’s new owner.

Hoila, who worked in child care in Jefferson County, is building her staff, which includes a family from Ukraine. She hopes to expand the center, but said now it’s rough to have to turn people away. Forty people are on Bearly Tawl’s waiting list.

Among the goals of the team developing the center in Idaho Springs are providing pathways for people to become early childhood educators and providing good wages for the center’s employees.

The state has a one-stop, online site for information about training related to early childhood care and learning. The Colorado Shines Professional Development Information System is designed for professionals of all levels of experience and education. The Department of Early Childhood has nearly $21 million for recruitment and retention, including scholarships and free minimum coursework through the community college system.

More populated areas are not immune to problems with having enough child care centers. Mile High United Way is going to transform part of its headquarters in Denver into a child care center for 60 children. The surrounding area includes the Five Points, Curtis Park and Capitol Hill neighborhoods and is considered a child care desert. There are slots for only 45 percent of the children under 5.

“We’ve been in the early childhood education space for over 25 years and it continues to be one of the biggest issues facing our community in terms of giving every child a great start in life,” said Mile High United Way President and CEO Christine Benero. “But we also know it’s a key economic driver, particularly for the city of Denver and particularly for women being able to be in the workforce.”

Mile High Early Learning will operate the child care center, which is scheduled to open in 2024. Bennet and Sen. John Hickenlooper have championed securing congressional funds for the $4.4 million project, Benero said. Corporate donations include a gift from the PNC Foundation.

No one has to convince Madison Halloran of the value of education, especially for children. She said she and her young son were homeless when she talked to Nancy Duenas of Mile High Early Learning. She qualified for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and enrolled her son.

“My goal is to get a degree so my family can prosper and try to get out of poverty,” said Halloran, who is taking online college courses full-time.

“I think the future depends on every child having access to programs like this. They’re learning social skills, they’re learning their roles. They’re able to be creative,” Halloran said. “I think it makes a whole world of difference.”

©2023 MediaNews Group, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
From Our Partners