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High demand and staffing needs pervade area child care

As one of two working parents with children 1, 3 and 5 years old, few commodities are as precious to Eben Nordahl as child care.

“My wife and I both work, so we’re not in a situation where one of us can stay home and take care of the kids,” said Nordahl, whose children go to Fit-n-Fun Childcare and Preschool, in Rapid City. “It’s something we’ve relied on everywhere we’ve lived.”

The quest to find child care right now for many families may be tougher than it was in past years, as providers face staffing shortages and high demand for services. Statistics provided by the South Dakota Department of Social Services indicate, since March 2020, only a 2% reduction in child care slots in registered and licensed facilities for the state’s Child Care Licensing Region One – which includes Pennington County – but people working at child care and preschool sites report a strong need for more staff members and a shortage of staff applicants.

Amanda Moriarty is program director for the Child Development Center, which serves children from four weeks old through the third grade and falls under the auspices of Youth and Family Services.

“The biggest hurdle is staffing,” Moriarty said. “I am very short-staffed. I have several open positions, and very few if any applicants.”

It’s a problem shared widely by child care providers and after-school programs throughout the state and beyond.

Staffing needs

On a recent morning, Moriarty said she has 24 teachers and assistant teachers on staff – and she also has 24 openings. With half of the positions filled, and with some adjustments, she said she’s able to serve 66% of the usual number of children. She said there’s a wait list for all ages – and she said the wait tends to be longer this fall than last for families. The center currently serves 48 infants and toddlers, from 4 weeks to 3 years old; 66 preschool children, from 3 to 5 years old; and 28 school-aged children, from kindergarten to third grade.

The Child Development Center is open to all families and as a licensed child care facility, the center enables eligible families to receive state assistance, Moriarty said. Since it is part of Youth and Family Services, it can offer eligible families other benefits, as well.

“All of our infant-toddler spots are grant-funded, so something that is kind of unique to our program is that our parents do not bring anything,” Moriarty said, noting that supplies such as diapers are provided at the center. “Our Early Head Start (and) Head Start grants cover the majority of care per day. The parents are only charged for the wraparound portion of the day.”

Moriarty said the center’s classrooms are open to the children for as many as 11 hours a day. She noted, too, that the center provides transportation for school-aged children.

Parents or guardians must be working or going to school to qualify for the services, but Moriarty said emergency funds are available in the case of sudden job loss.

This fall she’s noticed a higher rate of COVID-19 among both children and staff members than compared to last fall.

“One noticeable difference at the start of this school year compared to last year was the number of young children who were testing positive for COVID,” Moriarty said, and she added that the complications from COVID-19 “make it increasingly challenging to serve additional families.”

Moriarty said the center follows the recommendations of the South Dakota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with regard to safety. She explained that for staff members who are unvaccinated and who are exposed to people who have COVID-19, the recommendation is to be quarantined.

Moriarty underlined the safety precautions in place at the Child Development Center.

“As a program, all adults are wearing masks,” she said. “We do ask our parents, or visitors – all adults who enter to please wear a mask.”

Children inside the facility, she said, wear masks when their parents request that they do.

“The school-aged children, when they’re on the bus, they wear a mask because they’re in a confined space,” she said. “We have a lot of practices we’ve implemented in an abundance of caution.”

Longer waits

The YMCA of Rapid City also harbors a wait list, one that’s larger than it’s been in past years. The YMCA’s Early Learning Program serves about 375 children from birth to 5 years old at multiple locations – and the program’s wait list stands at about 240 children, based on estimates from the YMCA earlier this month.

“It’s skyrocketed,” said Keiz Larson, executive director of the YMCA of Rapid City. “Pre-COVID we were right around 50,” she said.

Part of the reason for the wait list’s growth, Larson said, is the need for staff members in the YMCA’s Early Learning Program. At full staff, the YMCA employs 57 teachers and aides in that program. Larson said the staffing is down about 10 to 15% – a larger deficit than in previous years. But much of what’s driving the wait list, she said, is the increased demand – a demand she said is driven, at least in part, by the presence of fewer child care providers than in the past.

She recalled the period roughly from March to August of 2020.

“That was a five-month period where we were trying to figure out, ‘How can we operate in a COVID world?’” she said. “In that five months, businesses that didn’t have additional financial resources to support them ended up closing.”

An emailed statement from South Dakota Department of Social Services Cabinet Secretary Laurie Gill noted developments since last year in South Dakota Child Care Licensing Region One, which includes Pennington County and eight other counties.

“Since March of 2020, there has only been a 2% reduction in child care slots (in registered or licensed programs) even though there has been a reduction of 15 (10%) child care programs since March of 2020,” Gill wrote. “As of October 2021, Region One has two more child care centers that provide childcare services as compared to March of 2020. The additional child care centers have lessened the impact on the number of child care slots that are available. The closure of before and after school programs had the highest impact on the number of available slots in Region One.”

Larson pointed out, however, that a number of in-home daycare services likely closed amid the pandemic, reducing choices for people seeking child care.

“Some of these in-home day cares lost children when parents were either required to stay home or work from home,” she said. “Because these providers didn’t have the regular number of children, some had to return to the workforce and close.”

Larson stressed, too, that the need for staffing ranges beyond the youngest children.

“We need staffing for (children) 0 to 18, for all of our programming,” she said.

Nicole Weiss, early learning director for the YMCA of Rapid City, agreed that the need for staffing throughout the area has tightened availability.

“There’s a lot of places taking less kids … because they can’t get enough staff,” Weiss said. “That’s a pretty big limiting factor for a lot of places.”

Weiss lauded staff members as working together diligently through the challenging times.

Larson also praised the staff and added, “We are having to pay overtime. We are having to look at ways to work on staff morale because those staff members are giving an extraordinary amount of time to ensuring that our parents and the kids and families in our community are taken care of.”

Officials at the YMCA’s Early Learning Program and Youth and Family Services’ Child Development Center – both licensed facilities within nonprofit organizations – noted the importance of providing a safe place and a careful curriculum in spite of the staffing challenges.

For the youngest children, Moriarty said, the focus tends to be directed especially toward social-emotional development. Moriarty, Larson and Weiss all stressed the need for thoughtful interaction between staff members and children.

“Our teachers are required to hold infants while feeding them,” Moriarty said. “And while feeding them they need to be having some sort of dialogue.”

Providers have emphasized that enough staff members are on duty to supply strong care for the children accepted into the centers. But some suggest that more staff members could facilitate care for more children and relieve some of the workload faced by existing staff members.

Child care officials also said that federal assistance has provided some needed relief for families. Larson and John Julius, Chief Executive Officer of Youth and Family Services, noted that the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, for instance, provided financial help to parents and guardians.

The YMCA and Youth and Family Services have tapped other significant financial grants, as well.

Modest pay

Amethyst Milburn, the lead 1-year old teacher at Fit-N-Fun Childcare and Preschool, mentioned modest pay as a prominent reason for the shortage of child care staff members.

“I think a big part of staffing issues in most child care facilities is the pay,” she said. “We don’t get paid as much as you would if you were working at the hospital doing, say, a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) job.”

Milburn, who’s 22, said she’s at a point in her life when she doesn’t have many bills, so the salary isn’t as much of a deterrent as it might be for some. She's earned her National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians certification, and she worked in the medical field for about five years before beginning her current job in March. She said she enjoyed the medical work but found it to be piercingly stressful, particularly after the outbreak of COVID-19.

The work she’s doing in child care, she said, doesn’t generate the same stress – and that makes it more appealing. But she emphasized that the child care work does demand a deep sense of caring.

“You’ve got to be a good person with a good heart, or otherwise it will be a mess,” she said with a chuckle.

She also described the sort of contribution she likes to make to children’s lives.

“I like being around the kids,” she said. “On the day when they’re not with their parents, it’s me … and I like being that person.”

Huda Jabar, director of Fit-N-Fun Childcare and Preschool, a licensed facility, said the center is serving about 125 children, up from about 45 last fall.

“We have less COVID cases because we have more people who are vaccinated now,” she said. She noted other safety measures that have been in place, as well.

Jabar said 17 teaching staff members worked for the center, and she’d welcome more.

“It’s been very challenging to find the right staff with the quality and experience,” she said. “We are in need of four or five more staff members. As a director, I’m on the floor eight to 10 hours a day trying to fill shifts ... I feel like I’m blessed with the core staff that have been with me for many years. But if any of the staff call in sick, we are definitely tight.”

Jabar, too, noted the formidable task of offering competitive salaries.

“As a small business, it’s been challenging trying to compete with big companies or businesses,” she said.

Federal assistance designed for COVID-19 relief has helped families and staff at Fit-N-Fun, as well, Jabar said.

To a parent, finding child care that fits can be a deeply personal endeavor – something that makes shortages and waiting periods all the harder. Nordahl, whose children go to Fit-N-Fun, said that his children helped him and his wife choose the center. As the family visited facilities, he explained, he and his wife kept a close eye on their children’s reactions.

“We’ve always watched our kids when they get there,” he said. “They’re naturally shy, but do they seem interested in it? Do they seem comfortable? The kids will tell you within five minutes.”

The South Dakota Department of Social Services recommended the following resources for people seeking child care:

  • Child Care Assistance is available to families who meet income guidelines so they can work or attend school. Additional information including an online application is available at dss.sd.gov/childcare/childcareassistance/apply or by calling Child Care Services at 1.800.227.3020.
  • Parents in any South Dakota community can access the Child Care Helpline to assist them in searching for available child care by dialing 211 or searching online at www.helplinecenter.org\childcare.
  • Families can search on the South Dakota Department of Social Services website to find registered and licensed child care options as well as resources to information about choosing child care.
  • Families can search on the State website at Provider Search Results (sd.gov) to find registered and licensed child care options as well as resources to information about choosing child care.
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