The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly voted Monday to direct city staff to investigate possible solutions to what is anticipated to be an exceptionally high demand for child care services once the school year begins.
The move followed suggestions from the Juneau Economic Stabilization Task Force that a comprehensive child care strategy be developed, and the Assembly use $60,000 in CARES Act money to potentially hire a short-term K-12 child care coordinator for a six months. No money was appropriated Monday, but a motion was passed instructing city staff to “look into” child care options.
Some members of the Assembly pushed back against the idea, saying child care has been an issue in the city for years and that another committee was unlikely to produce substantive results, particularly on such a condensed time frame.
“I can’t see any value coming out of directing the city staff to come up with a comprehensive plan,” said Assembly member Loren Jones. “Parents are working on (finding child care) now, those who have resources are great, those who don’t have resources are going to be left behind. If we want to target this to low-income families whose kids may be at risk that’s one thing. It does not make sense to me to burden the staff.”
The Assembly had already paid for child care in the city, argued Assembly member Wade Bryson, by funding the Juneau School District to the highest allowable levels under federal law.
“We should get a portion of that school money back because we already paid for the child care,” Bryson said. “We’ve wanted child care corrected for years, now we’ve not only not solved that problem but we’ve exacerbated it (by closing schools).”
Bryson was a member of the city’s Childcare Committee which struggled to find child care solutions under more normal circumstances, and tasking yet another body with a more complex problem in a shorter time-frame didn’t make sense.
“Thinking that we’re going to have pop-up child care with all the requirements and restrictions (required by law), then saying, you’re only going to need it for a year because kids can go back to school,” he said. “We’re hoping to have people that would do child care for one year, is really the question that would be asked and that is an unrealistic expectation.”
Earlier this month, the Juneau School District announced it the new school year would begin Aug. 24 with students staying mostly at home, forcing some parents to scramble to find child care.
“We’re getting calls from families who were supposed to do kindergarten at the district and are trying to do kindergarten with us here now because they need to go back to work and we’re open for childcare so they’re trying to switch into our program,” said Laura Talpey, Executive Director of Juneau Montessori School in Douglas.
Montessori is a private school which until the coronavirus pandemic, was entirely privately funded, Talpey said, but the school had since received grants from federal, state and local governments.
“The support this summer has been amazing, city funding this summer allowed us to stay open even with low enrollment and low-income tuition,” she said.
The school had reduced its class sizes to allow for more social distancing, Talpey said, and classes were now kept completely separate from one another. Smaller, separate classes means the school needs a higher adult-to-child ratio, even with lower enrollment.
“We’re operating at a pretty large monthly deficit right now, we’re not going to be able to maintain that for very long,” she said.
Assemblymembers who defended the proposal acknowledged the difficulty but argued there was little other choice.
“I agree with everything I’ve heard,” said Assembly member Rob Edwardson. “Everything everyone’s said is right from a certain perspective but we’re about 30 minutes closer to Aug. 24, and we still have a problem coming up. It’s too big of an ask to ask the city staff to come up with a comprehensive plan but I think they could come up with a comprehensive framework. We have to do something.”
City Manager Rorie Watt, whose office would oversee the effort, said he thought the recommendation was a good one. City staff would consult with child care providers in the city and provide the best recommendations they could. Watt agreed with Assembly members who pointed out that city buildings may be used as potential child care centers.
“There is a needle to be threaded, with the scale and the of number of kids,” he said. “This is going to be hard all the way along”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.