Childcare is filled with contradictions: It’s an expensive service, but a low-paid profession. Childcare centers are full, with long waitlists, but struggle to meet costs. It is a community problem, borne mostly by working parents who have to scramble to find options that fit. In the final installment of KCAW’s three-part series on early childhood services in Sitka, Katherine Rose examines where other communities are turning for solutions:
Childcare advocates say working families with young children are in a bind.
“Parents are really having terrible decisions to make,” says Joy Lyon, who directs the Association for the Education of Young Children.
“They have a job, they need to be able to feed and house their child, that’s really important, and yet they can’t find childcare, or they have no choices,” she says. “That’s really stressful. And then being able to afford it is a-whole-nother story.”
She says this problem isn’t just manifesting in Sitka. It’s an issue throughout Southeast. Take Juneau where Lyon lives. There’s only one slot for every 10 infants in the community. She says that creates real challenges for working parents.
“Pretty much, in Southeast, about 70 percent of parents are in the workforce,” she says. That’s a large number out there that really needs to have some care for their children, and they want that to be good care.”
By the numbers, it varies across Southeast: there’s one childcare space for every five children under age 5 in Juneau. In Ketchikan, it’s one slot for every three children. Lyon estimates that for Sitka, it’s somewhere in between, at about one space for every 3 ½ children. She says ideally there’d be a space for every two children, considering that not every parent needs childcare.
Financial assistance exists to help parents with childcare. But the scale of the problem in Southeast poses a challenge for programs that want to help. In Sitka, tribal citizens can get funding from Sitka Tribe of Alaska to cover most or all of the cost of childcare, at around $1,200 a month on average. But to get the funding you have to prove you’re sending your child to a licensed childcare provider, and there aren’t enough of those in Sitka to meet the current need. Clara Gray is a case worker for STA’s social services department.
“I think that’s a big problem that we have with applicants to our childcare program,” she says. “They don’t actually have childcare. In the past couple of months, at least two families have had to wait.”
Sitka Tribe will even help home providers get their licenses. If you’re not a tribal citizen, there’s state funding available, but it’s income dependent and also requires that your childcare provider meet certain guidelines.
Employer sponsored or provided childcare is another option Sitkans have been talking about. Though the federal government doesn’t require employers to reimburse employees for childcare, it does provide tax breaks to those that do. Lolly Miller, with the Sheldon Jackson Childcare Center, says the lack of options impacts Sitka’s workforce
“Sitka is in trouble. People are not going to come here to work if they can’t secure childcare,” she says. “I think the small businesses or SEARHC, some of the larger ones, really need to be thinking about that to attract quality people.”
Miller says she inherited a lot of kids when the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium — or SEARHC, Sitka’s largest employer — closed its childcare center in 2013. In an email to KCAW, hospital spokesperson Maegan Bosak wrote that the hospital may consider providing childcare again in the future.
Joy Lyon says the City and Borough of Juneau is seeking to address the childcare shortage. The Juneau Assembly is mulling whether to subsidize the cost of childcare locally. An earlier citizens’ initiative was voted down in 2018.
“I think people are realizing we can’t just wait for the federal government or the state to come in and come to the rescue,” she says.
Juneau’s new mayor has since formed a childcare taskforce that has worked on the issue.
Now, the Juneau Assembly is considering funding a childcare subsidy program this budget cycle. The city would pay qualifying caregivers $200 a month for each infant or toddler they care for, and $50 a month for each preschooler.
“That would really help fill that gap between what parents can afford to pay and what programs need to stay open and operate efficiently,” she says.
But what works in Juneau may not work in other Southeast communities. Mandy Evans, of Sitka’s Early Childhood Coalition, says that’s why they’re holding town hall meetings in Sitka.
“What are our unique challenges, what are our unique strengths, and what long term, and short term goal we could create for our community, and not rely on answers to come on the national and state level?” Evans says these are questions the coalition will be considering when it meets on February 10th.
But one thing is clear: The need is high. After going through its parent surveys, the Coalition realized that childcare was edging toward a crisis. The group sponsored a self-care cafe in January, and around 35 families turned out to discuss childcare, and share a free dinner. While caregivers watched over 50 children, their parents got massages, made art, and meditated, spending the time however they wanted.
The event brought people together and provided temporary relief — but only that. Long-term solutions are going to take more time. Struggling parents like Makenzie Rose (no relation) hope they can hold out.
“I wish that this was something that was talked about more. It’s just so hard and so many people are dealing with it. I feel like we’re all kind of trying to put on a tough face, and that’s great, you have to do what you have to do to get through your day,” she says. “But I want people to know how hard it is and that we do need to be making some real changes in this country. We’re being set up for failure.”
And advocates worry that the cost of failing to solve the childcare crisis will far exceed the price of creating real solutions.
Sitka’s Early Childhood Coalition invites all to a discussion on affordability and availability of child care in Sitka 5 p.m. Monday, February 10, at Harrigan Centennial Hall.
For more coverage of childcare in Sitka:
Read part one: New parents scramble to find affordable options in Sitka
Read part two: Centers struggle to balance tuition costs, teacher pay