Little chairs sit in stacks after the temporary closure of downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center in mid-January, and another closure shortly followed, leaving dozens of families scrambling to find child care. Now, providers are speaking out about the dire situation the industry finds itself in and what needs to be done to fix it. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Little chairs sit in stacks after the temporary closure of downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center in mid-January, and another closure shortly followed, leaving dozens of families scrambling to find child care. Now, providers are speaking out about the dire situation the industry finds itself in and what needs to be done to fix it. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A child care conundrum: Closures make local shortage worse, and providers say solutions may take a while.

“The crisis that we are having and experiencing right now, we are not alone in it.”

The date on the chalkboard hanging on a wall at the downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center still reads Friday, Jan. 13 written in blue cursive. That day has long since passed.

The chalkboard — along with all the toys, chairs and books filling the center — have not been touched by the children who normally would bring life to the center since that date because the child care center, located in the Hurff A. Saunders Federal Building downtown, recently closed its doors to the more than 40 children and their families it served and will remain closed until further notice.

“It was pretty heartbreaking,” said Andrea Hattan, the president of the center’s volunteer parent board. “Our staff worked with these kids and families every single day of their work lives, the words ‘heartbreaking’ is a sentiment I heard more than once — it was a very hard decision.”

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
A chalkboard hangs on a wall at the downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center still reads the date as Friday, Jan. 13 days after the center’s temporary closure.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire
A chalkboard hangs on a wall at the downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center still reads the date as Friday, Jan. 13 days after the center’s temporary closure.

Hattan said the decision to close was made after nearly three months of the volunteer board of parents running the center without an executive director, a crucial piece to keep the center going. The previous director left in November, and until the center can find a new one, it will remain temporarily closed, reassessing the decision every 30 days for the next 90 days.

“I hope that the community will come together to discuss the systemic challenges that the child care industry is facing,” said Gold Creek’s board’s treasurer Ashley Snookes. “The crisis that we are having and experiencing right now, we are not alone in it.”

She’s right.

Following the closure, another child care center in Juneau, Aurora Lights Child Care Center, also closed its doors less than a week later. It too struggled to find a new administrator to run its operations and was forced to stop providing care to the eight children it served.

Since 2018, Alaska has seen a 20% drop in its child care workforce, and the annual cost of care per child in the state costs more than a year of tuition and fees at any University of Alaska campus, according to a 2020 study by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. At a nationwide level, nearly 9,000 child care centers closed between December 2019 and March 2021, according to a study by ChildCare Aware of America.

The child care industry and the families who rely on it in Juneau — and across Alaska and the nation — have been each struggling to meet the challenge of finding and providing — respectively — affordable and reliable child care. Now, with the recent closures leaving dozens of families scrambling to find child care, the providers are speaking out about the dire situation the industry finds itself in and what needs to be done to fix it.

The domino effect of closure

Gold Creeks’ closure not only left families and children without care, but it also left its workers without jobs.

Hattan said it was with a “very heavy heart” that the board had to lay off the 12 employees who provide care at its location for an indeterminate amount of time. The employees were given a severance package, but beyond that, the future of their positions remains up in the air as the center continues to struggle to find a new director.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
Toys sit stagnant on a desk and will remain so after the temporary closure of downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center in mid-January, and another closure shortly followed, leaving dozens of families scrambling to find child care. Now, providers are speaking out about the dire situation the industry finds itself in and what needs to be done to fix it.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire
Toys sit stagnant on a desk and will remain so after the temporary closure of downtown Gold Creek Child Development Center in mid-January, and another closure shortly followed, leaving dozens of families scrambling to find child care. Now, providers are speaking out about the dire situation the industry finds itself in and what needs to be done to fix it.

“Children still need care and workers still need jobs,” Snookes said. “So when no care is available in the community, we need to be proactively figuring out creative ways to address these challenges. I think it may be in the coming months that we really see more of the systemic challenges emerge in new ways in this industry.”

Kayla Svinicki, executive director of Little Moon Whole Child Foundation Inc. said in direct response to the recent closures, Auke Lake Preschool and Afterschool Program — which is operated by Little Moon and is a licensed child care center — recently opened up another classroom to provide 10 additional spots for families who lost their care in addition to welcoming a handful of staff from the closed centers. Those spots filled almost immediately.

“We’re being as active as we can in these closures — we don’t want to see anyone close,” she said. “We see how important these centers are for the well-being of our community and we want to keep them alive.”

Svinicki said closures are devastating, but given the current lack of resources for child care providers across the state, she said it’s not necessarily surprising to see centers in Juneau struggling too, and noted Little Moon is not immune to those struggles and has gone through many ups and downs to land where they are now.

She said for change to occur, action must be taken at all levels of the community and government to support the providers by supporting the industry and elevating the standards in the child care workforce.

“The need is too great after decades of being under-resourced and then we slapped COVID on top of it and we all were all trying to stay afloat during that time, but the expectation was we would stay afloat afterwards too, and I mean, it’s laughable,” Svinicki said. “We talk about how much support we need and how under-resourced we are and about what child care needs, yet the action piece is missing.”

Svinicki said there needs to be a way to streamline the process for people in Alaska to get the necessary skills to provide quality child care in a timely manner, something she said is not the case now.

“There are so many barriers to licensing child care providers to provide care quickly,” she said. “There needs to be a new structure, policies and framework that allows providers to put in their passion and reach children effectively and efficiently.”

Svinicki said she hopes that the closed centers are able to reopen and said her center will continue to find ways to aid and collaborate with Aurora Lights and Gold Creek during this time.

What is being done?

City and Borough of Juneau Deputy City Manager Robert Barr and Assembly member Carole Triem recently returned from Anchorage after attending a meeting attended by child care providers, and municipal and statewide officials who gathered to discuss the child care crisis happening across the state of Alaska. The meeting was hosted by thread, an Alaska child care resource and referral network which works to advance the quality of early education and child development across the state.

Barr said the meeting opened his eyes to just how important supporting child care across the state is to not only keep the Juneau community thriving but also the children receiving care.

“We need to elevate the profession,” he said. “We know now that child care and the experiences that children get through trained adults who know the best practice for early childhood development is a key component to make sure our kids are ready to learn and it impacts their lives for decades.”

Barr said Juneau is one of the few municipalities in Alaska that has dedicated and recurring funding going directly to child care providers. Some of the actions already being implemented by the city include the city’s partnership with the Association for Education of Young Children Southeast to provide funding through the HEARTS Initiative, which each year provides $180,000 of general funds from the city that go toward supporting educational incentives, fee waivers and reimbursements for early educators to improve the quality and availability of child care in Juneau.

Barr said the initiative is a direct result of the Assembly Childcare Committee formed between 2018 and2019, which looked at Juneau’s child care crisis and searched for solutions the city could take to address it.

Another action the city has taken is again in partnership with AEYC and a program called the Per Child Stipend Program, which provides $625,000 per year toward providers in Juneau that can then apply to get a stipend for every child they provide service which ranges from $50 a month to $200 depending on the age of the child and family income.

Lastly, and the most recent city action, was the decision to place child care on the list of programs that are able to receive funding from the city’s temporary sales tax which was approved by Juneau voters in October.

Because of the approval, over the next five years $2.5 million will go toward child care in Juneau. Barr said the city is working to develop a plan for how the funding will be utilized, but said the first round of funding, around $500,000 per year, will begin making its way to the child care community at the beginning of the Fiscal Year 2024.

Even with the handful of programs offered at the city level, Barr said it hardly scrapes the surface of what needs to be done to effectively assist child care providers and the families that need care.

“We really need all levels of government, as well as community partners, coming together to solve the problem — the problem is too big for any one organization to solve on its own — it’s going to take a lot of work and funding from everywhere,” Barr said. “We’re doing good work but it’s an incremental process — more money needs to come and we will continue to engage with the legislature and state and federal agencies to get it increased.”

In response to the challenges continuing to be faced by Alaska’s child care providers, a newly formed coalition, Child Care Coalition of Alaska, announced it will begin holding forums to provide a unified voice that will advocate for equitable funding increases to child care programs and provide more compensation to its workforce. In its formation announcement on Thursday, the coalition stated it will begin holding informational meetings as the 2023 legislative session kicks off.

“Child care sites across the state are permanently closing as they face immense challenges hiring and retaining staff,” said Blue Shibler, executive director of AEYC Southeast Alaska in the announcement. “Without new government investments aimed directly at improving job quality — including through increasing wages for staff — the child care sector will not make up its significant shortfall in workers, and parents will be left with fewer and fewer options. Child care workers are essential to keeping the state economy strong, policymakers must meet the moment and invest in child care immediately.”

New beginnings will take time

Barr said one of the largest burdens placed on child care centers is finding resources and funding to maintain and pay for the building costs of the center while also still providing adequate pay for workers.

Steps toward bringing more child care infrastructure to Juneau are in motion following a $5 million earmark in the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill signed by the president in early January. The earmark, included in the bill by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a republican, is set to head AEYC Southeast which will be leading a project to create a family services center in Juneau that will include an on-site child care center.

However, it’s going to take some time before boots hit the ground.

“We envision having all things for families, including child care — which we know is a very desperate situation in our town,” said Nikki Love, AEYC community engagement coordinator. “This would open up more spots for children in Juneau.”

Love said the plans for the facility are “still in the very beginning stages” but said the AEYC is currently working with a realtor and architect to draft an overview plan and are searching for a site, which she said is likely to be in the Lemon Creek or Mendenhall Valley area. She said it’s a goal for the site to be accessible via a bus line.

Love said she hopes the child care center can provide some relief to families in the Juneau community struggling to find affordable child care.

Along with the center, Love said the building will also serve as a learning lab for early education professionals which will train people in early education, something she said AEYC hopes can create more readily available workers for child care centers both in Juneau and in Southeast Alaska.

“The goal is to connect people,” she said. “We’re all coming out of the pandemic and we know that children and families definitely have struggled, so we’d like to reconnect, stay connected and really build resiliency in the community.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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