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'A delicate balance': Pandemic exacerbates child care challenges for Gallatin Valley families, providers

XY Learning Center, Childcare

Laura Rodas, lead teacher at XY Learning Center, talks to one of her students during outdoor recess on July 14, 2021.

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When JoAnne Nordham’s part-time nanny graduated from Montana State University in December, she and her husband began the search for a new child care option for their two toddlers.

At one center, the price would be $2,200 a month for the Nordham’s 2-year-old and 3-year-old.

“In the valley, it’s very expensive. In other cities, it’s much less,” Nordham said. “… The cost of living has risen significantly over the years and there’s a supply and demand issue with regard to child care facilities and private child care. Whenever you’re looking for child care there’s a significant portion of people that’s also looking.”

While a neighbor has been helping the Nordhams out in the interim, they have to find a new option by this winter, she said. The family is open to a child care center, a small in-home day care or a nanny but so far there hasn’t been an option that fit their budget and felt right for their children.

The Nordham’s search is an example of the struggle many families find themselves in throughout Gallatin Valley. As the population grows, demand for child care increases alongside rising costs of living.

“The cost and availability, it was bad (before the pandemic), now it’s crazy bad,” she said.

That struggle is also felt by the child care providers themselves, who have faced staffing shortages and increasing costs associated with providing care in the past year.

Nordham said she understands the rates child care centers need to charge “because they have to pay more for people and rent is going up …. It’s kind of a cyclical problem.”

Both the providers and the families seeking child care are struggling to find a balance.

“Child care was kind of in a hard spot before the pandemic even started. There’s always been a lack of availability and affordability in Montana,” said Sarah Peterson, family engagement coordinator with Child Care Connections, a non-profit that advocates for accessible and safe child care.

Affordable and available child care is a long term challenge in Montana and nationwide, Peterson said.

“Montana as a whole is considered a child care desert,” Peterson said. “That means all of our counties have less spots available.”

The effects of the pandemic, including health and safety concerns, the increasing cost of living around Bozeman and employee shortages, have only exacerbated the precarious position many child care providers and families are in.

XY Learning Center, Childcare

Children store their belongings in cubbies at XY Learning Center on July 14, 2021.

Staffing challenges

Like many other industries in Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, child care centers have seen job postings go unanswered or struggled to find qualified employees in the past few months.

Peterson said they’re seeing programs either close altogether because they couldn’t find enough staff or scale back the number of openings they have available.

“It’s an industry where people aren’t necessarily wanting to enter right now,” she said. “A lot of the people working in child care facilities are those that qualify for our scholarships, that means they’re struggling and they’re low income as well. We need to be able to invest in our programs so we can compensate our child care workers better.”

Gina Briceno, owner of Children’s Development Center, has seen the pressures hitting the child care providers and families in the years she’s worked in Bozeman as both an employee and an owner of a child care center.

“We’ve had to try to work within making child care more advantageous to do as a profession and also be able to juggle what parents can pay,” Briceno said. “… It’s a delicate balance that you’re trying to run there.”

“I have employees that rent and they’re finding it very difficult and so I gave a pretty substantial cost of living raise this year because I want to keep the ones I have,” Briceno said, adding she gave each of her employees a $3-an-hour raise.

Angie Buckley, director of Southwood Child Care Center, said she’s had two staff members leave with little notice due to a housing situation.

With 120 to 130 children per day, Southwood is one of the largest child care centers in the Gallatin Valley.

“Our costs are going to go up this year, and that will be passed on to staff wages 100%,” Buckley said.

Facing employee shortages, many child care providers have to scale back the number of children they’re accepting to ensure they stay within the adult-child ratios for state licensing.

With three full time teachers, a part-time janitor and a part-time cook, the Children’s Development Center has about 30 children enrolled and a waitlist. The center is licensed to care for another 10 children but Briceno said she would need to hire another teacher to do that.

While she’s put out job ads, she said there aren’t a lot of people looking. In the past, Briceno said she would typically have five to six applicants for each job but “now you’re lucky to get one and you’re even luckier if that’s someone that is qualified.”

If she were able to hire more employees, Briceno said she would be able to expand the number of children she enrolls.

Southwood has between 31 and 35 employees and is looking to hire three to four staff members in the near future, Buckley said. She’s hopeful those positions will get more applicants, saying she’s seen an increase in people applying for a position she posted in June than she has in the past six months.

“Overall, we’re full as we can be due to staffing issues,” Buckley said. “Our biggest issue isn’t not having the children wanting to be there, it’s having the staff and, like the situation all over Bozeman, looking for employees.”

As costs rise in the valley, some child care providers are having to account for that in their overhead costs too.

Gloves, which providers use to change diapers, had one of the most dramatic cost increases. A box of 400 would normally cost Buckley around $8.99 but recently she’s had to pay $29.99 for a box.

“This has been a tough year,” Buckley said. “It’s been one of the years where I’ve been like, ‘Man what do you do as an employer and a provider?’”

Private in-home care

For families seeking child care, centers and large day cares aren’t the only option. In-home providers — for state licensing, typically one provider with a max of six children — offer smaller settings and personalized care.

There were a few child care centers that permanently closed due to the pandemic, Peterson said, but there are more programs and more private in-home child care options opening too.

For Shy-Anne Brewington, starting her own small in-home day care was the best option for her. Brewington opened her state-licensed in-home business in March and has room for six children up to 5 years of age.

“I grew up babysitting and nannying and worked at a different day care center here,” she said. “It’s kind of my goal and dream to open my own.”

She now has four children in her care and two spots open for children 2 years and older. Due to state licensing requirements, she’s only allowed to take on the care of three children under 2 years old.

While she’s still looking to fill the two spots for 2 years and older, Brewington said she has people messaging her every day checking for availability and whether they can get on her waitlist for the infant spots.

When Brewington first started the process of opening her in-home child care, she received advice and a grant to help cover start-up costs from Child Care Connections. She also received donations of toys and books from local families. But her biggest expense remains rent, since she doesn’t own the home she lives and works out of.

Brewington, who graduated from Montana State University with a degree in early childhood education, has experience working in various child care models, including a center in the valley.

When she started working at the center, Brewington said she started off with a fair wage. But despite her experience and college degree, she didn’t receive a substantial raise.

“There was a lot of turnover of employees while I was there,” she said. “It was great to work with for college schedules but people weren’t always connected and passionate about child care.”

Brewington, who charges her families a monthly fee, said child care in the area is expensive and she understands the struggles of both families and child care providers and centers to keep up with the costs.

XY Learning Center, Childcare

Michael Foster, 4, plays on the equipment during recess at XY Learning Center on July 14, 2021, in downtown Bozeman.

Employer connected programs

With the struggles facing families searching for care, some large employers are beginning to look at how to support their employees who need child care, including creating their own day cares.

“A lot of people are starting to work on and think about employer supported care,” Peterson said, with more major employees looking into either developing their own child care centers or subsidizing care for their employees.

In 2018, Zoot Enterprises, a software company located in Bozeman, announced it was opening an onsite day care to provide child care for its employees. At that time, it employed more than 250 people.

This year, XY Planning Network, a financial advising group, took a similar approach when it opened XY Learning Center, but with a twist.

While the center is a child care option for XY Planning employees, it also accepts families from throughout Gallatin Valley, according to Rhiannon Shook, director of XY Learning Center.

She estimates around 10% of the children are from families of XY Planning and the majority are from outside the company.

The learning center, which has been open since January at the former home of the Children’s Museum of Bozeman, has availability for most of its age groups and is running an additional summer camp.

Shook, who has experience in the child care field outside of XY, said working in partnership with a larger employer has its perks. She has the support of XY Planning’s payroll and human resource department and is able to offer a starting pay rate of $22 per hour plus full benefits to her employees.

XY Network also provided the learning center with a large loan to cover the start-up costs, which the child care center will be paying back, Shook said.

Having those resources and support have allowed Shook to stay focused on building a diverse learning community for children, she said.

Paying for care

With the average child care center charging at least $50 a day for care and even higher for infants, there is some support for low-income families.

Peterson of Child Care Connections said the Best Beginnings scholarships run by the state provides families who qualify with around $37 a day to go toward child care. The difference is either paid by families out-of-pocket or absorbed by the child care provider.

“I myself have spots that I say ‘Fine, I know I can lose $15 a day on three or four kids but no more than that,” Briceno of the Children’s Development Center. “… It used to be in the past that about half of my kids would be on state funded things but now I can’t afford it because things are a lot tighter.”

Recently, the income level to qualify was increased to expand the benefits to more families, Peterson said.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model of child care for families, Peterson said. It comes down to figuring out “how to distribute funding in an effective way so that all of our families are supported,” she said.

For Nordham, who is relying on a neighbor to provide child care for her 2- and 3-year-old, she said she’s still stuck in a middle ground of not qualifying for the Best Beginnings scholarships but still struggling to find an affordable option where she feels comfortable placing her two children.

“There’s a lot of families that are outside of the financial range for that but still struggle to afford child care,” she said.

Nordham said she recently reached out to Child Care Connections and submitted an application to their referral system to find more options. She keeps posting in social media groups, contacting friends and family for referrals and touring child care centers. It’s a process that has become extremely time consuming, she said.

“I wish there was more help for families for child care,” she said. “… No one goes into having children thinking child care would be what it is now.”

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