Kotzebue’s child care center closed more than a decade ago, and the community hasn’t had one since. Tracey Schaeffer and her daughter Bailey are trying to change that. They are tribally exempt child care providers through the Maniilaq Association of northwestern tribes, which would allow them to watch four children. But they’ve been working to get a state license, which would increase their capacity to 12 kids, since November and still haven’t gotten the certification they need to open their doors.
“If we have 12 kids, 12 parents get to go to work,” Schaeffer said. “So I know that doesn’t seem like an enormous amount. But it’s a start, you know?”
Schaeffer has worked in the Northwest Arctic School District and in early learning for decades and estimates there are at least 150 children in Kotzebue who could be enrolled in child care. But she said the state’s licensing process is hard to navigate, with requirements that are all but impossible to meet in remote parts of the state.
For example, her internet connection was a barrier to getting her background check approved. She estimated she spent 40 hours on top of her job with the school district to navigate that process alone.
“You have to fight to do this job,” she said. “This job that you are not necessarily financially rewarded for. You know, I’m not fighting to be a lawyer, right?”
Schaeffer is among the would-be child care providers in remote parts of Alaska who say they can’t get licensed because the state’s requirements, some based on federal rules, aren’t responsive to the realities of where they live. That means there’s either no child care or not enough child care to meet the demand, which keeps parents out of the workforce and disenfranchises remote communities and their predominantly Alaska Native populations.
“The stress of it is something that ripples through the whole community, and it affects everyone,” Shaeffer said. “Everyone is impacted by a lack of child care, everyone is impacted by a lack of early childhood opportunities for kids in the community. Everyone.”
Fingerprints and fire extinguishers
Roughly 600 miles south of Kotzebue, near Dillingham, villages face similar barriers. Anne Shade, Bristol Bay Native Association’s child development department director, has worked in child care in the region for decades. “It’s a disaster up here,” she said. “Child care desert, as they say.”
While even urban areas can have a shortage of child care providers, the problem is more severe in remote areas. A 2021 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that more than 60% of Alaskans live in a child care desert, which is a community that doesn’t have ready access to child care within a reasonable distance.
Bristol Bay Native Association serves 31 villages in Southwest Alaska. Four of them have Head Start school readiness programs: New Stuyahok, Manokotak, Togiak and Dillingham. But only the hub community of Dillingham has a licensed child care center. The region covers more than 46,000 square miles.
“It’s brutal, and the villages can’t meet the requirements of a licensed child care program. So it’s not even a possibility out there,” Shade said.
She said the region could use “dozens” more child care centers or home child care operators, but — in addition to the cost challenges even urban providers face — they’re stymied by licensing requirements.
To be a state licensed home child care provider, Shade said everyone in the home needs to have fingerprints on file. But there aren’t a lot of fingerprinting machines in bush Alaska, so would-be providers from villages need to buy costly plane tickets to get to Dillingham. Shade has fingerprinting equipment and a solid internet connection, something the Schaeffers struggled with in Kotzebue, but she said the cost of travel is still a huge barrier.
“Some of those communities are, you know, a $1,500 plane ride,” she said. “So either we send somebody down to roll everybody’s prints in the whole house, or we bring everybody up, which doesn’t make a lot of sense either.”
And she said if someone over the age of 16 moves into the house — say an older child returning from college for the summer or family members coming to stay for fish camp — they all need their fingerprints on file, too.
She said it’s easier in remote Alaska to get a tribal license than a state one, but state licenses allow caregivers to watch more kids.
“The feds have been really open to working with us as far as doing name checks instead of fingerprints — because we just can’t comply,” she said. “But the state is stuck because they’re not able to give that leeway that the feds are. And so there’s just no way to get state licensed in remote at all.”
Another barrier is fire extinguishers. To get a tribal or state license, providers need them. But they can’t be shipped normally, because they are considered a hazardous material. Usually, fire extinguishers must be shipped by ground, but that’s not an option for roadless communities. That means they need to be on a charter flight without other passengers.
“So suddenly you’re paying for a $3,000 charter to get a fire extinguisher down to Chignik, and it’s going to have to be serviced in a year,” Shade said. She said Bristol Bay Native Association is working with school districts to try and coordinate fire extinguisher inspections to save on costs.
“Everything is hard out here,” she said. “Everything.”
One size doesn’t fit all
Bridie Trainor, the child care program director for Kawerak Inc., a regional nonprofit tribal consortium based in Nome, said the state’s one-size-fits-all requirements don’t fit the Bering Strait region, either.
There’s access to child care in Nome, but Trainor said none of the surrounding villages have it — and the barriers to licensure, combined with the fiscal challenges of operating in the region, keep people from trying to open child care centers at all.
The region covers more than 20,000 miles and 20 communities, but only Nome has state-licensed child care options. There are Head Start classrooms in 11 of the communities.
She said there’s the opportunity to be licensed, but it isn’t accessible or affordable for people who live there. The state’s requirements for plumbing and heating aren’t reasonable in the region, she said.
“The state needs to create new regulations to defer to tribal standards and maintain access to state funding. Tribes need the option to license in a way that makes sense for each community,” she said.
Trainor said the cost of living in the region means that once a child care center is open, state reimbursements don’t reflect the true cost of care, and that needs to change. “If we want child care to be an option for providers to afford, then the reimbursement amounts need to reflect that,” she said.
She said that issue affects families, too, because their income may exceed the threshold to qualify for state assistance, but the dollars don’t go as far in the Bering Strait region, where costs are significantly higher than in urban areas. She said state income requirements need to reflect the cost of living.
Trainor is on the child care task force that met for the first time this week and said she’s hopeful those concerns are things the state can address.
“We have to solve this”
The state’s Department of Health didn’t agree to an interview about the challenges to licensing, or ways it helps remote areas navigate them, but sent a response via email.
It acknowledged that the fingerprint and fire extinguisher requirements are an issue, but said the state doesn’t have the authority to waive them because those are federal requirements.
The department also said state licensing professionals can point communities towards resources or solutions that have worked elsewhere, and that they are working on meeting with communities to “help provide information regarding licensing, answer questions, and collect feedback.”
Staci Collier, a child care licensing specialist for the state, wrote that “Helping people understand and complete the technical requirements goes a long way to help people through the application process.”
Some legislators are concerned about limited access to licensing. Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage, have both identified child care as legislative priorities. Coulombe is the liaison of the Legislature on the governor’s child care task force that Dunleavy announced in early April and which had its first meeting Wednesday.
In May, Armstrong said the two legislators met with Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg to talk about barriers to licensing, especially for remote areas, and to urge the department to “think creatively” about solutions.
“We have to solve this,” Armstrong said then. “One of the big issues is that all the departments are spread so thin. So child care is in crisis, so are 10 other things that the department is dealing with.”
“This is becoming a public health crisis,” she said, citing the importance of the first thousand days of brain development as a crucial time for good early education opportunities.
“Everything starts with child care and that’s why this one random thing — licensing — feels so important,” she said.
Not just an economic issue
The state loses an estimated $165 million in direct employer costs and taxes every year because there isn’t sufficient child care in most areas, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. But, in Kotzebue, there are additional concerns. Tracey Shaeffer said lack of child care also limits which children can stay in the community, which is why she’s working so hard to open a center.
“It’s our hope that it also allows some foster families here to have younger children,” she said. “And that’s a big hope — for those kids to stay in the region closer to their siblings.”
It took Schaffer seven months, but a state inspector visited her daughter’s home this week. If all goes well, they’ll be the first state-licensed child care center to open in Kotzebue in more than a decade.
• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.