Rural Hoosier communities rally as COVID-19 worsens childcare crisis for parents and providers

Listen to the radio version of this story as it aired on the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations.

The sounds emanating from Perry Preschool and Child Care on this brisk fall morning give a glimpse of just how hectic things are today. Two employees called and didn’t show up for work, while a third took a pre-scheduled day off.

Paige Schank is the Chief Financial Officer for the City of Tell’s Electricity Department. This isn’t her typical morning; Today she uses her holidays to volunteer at the center where her two children are cared for.

“So I was in an 8 o’clock meeting, the meeting was over, I told my boss. Luckily he’s very, very understanding. And I’ve been here for the last three hours – relative,” she said.

This ratio is important because licensing terms limit the number of children per employee in each room. Without Schank, the center would have been forced to turn families away at the door this morning.

It’s happened before.

“The world stands still and you’re like, ‘This is a lot more important than I initially thought,'” Schank said. “You don’t know how badly you need it until it’s gone.”

The center is so understaffed that it has been closed as often as it has been open in the past six months. But the fact that Schank is here is not a panacea; She cannot voluntarily stay in the rooms where her children are, and she must soon return to her real job.

Erin Emerson is executive director of the Perry County Economic Development Corporation and president of the honorary board of directors of Perry Preschool and Child Care. There is a sense of desperation and exhaustion in her voice as she describes what it has been like running the center lately.

“COVID added a whole new difficulty to something that was already incredibly difficult,” she said.

Essentially, it boils down to two things: a lack of sustained financial support and a complex web of permitting regulations. For this reason, combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, staffing in particular has been an increasingly difficult problem to solve.

Hiring employees takes a lot of time due to different requirements and training required before they start the job and this makes them difficult to find and keep on board. Prospective employee fingerprints are taken once a week in Perry County, which means it can take weeks — sometimes more than a month — to process all of an applicant’s paperwork, especially when business offices tend to be closed around the holidays.

And as the pandemic reshapes the world of work, people are no longer staying for $9 an hour.

“There are people who are no longer willing to work for poverty-level wages, and when you pay that, it’s really made a sea change,” Emerson said.

This is just one example of how limited services in the district have major consequences.

Unpredictable or even planned closures mean parents trying to return to work, like Schank, depend on the support of their workplace and family members. Some parents quit their jobs. A family is considering selling their home to move somewhere with more — or any — options.

Emerson doesn’t blame families for wanting to leave. It is difficult to find solutions for all that is required to keep the center open without increasing costs for the families. Enthusiasm from community donors has waned over time, and management of the center has fallen to Emerson and others who are willing to do the extra work.

“It’s really exciting when you start a center and raise the money to set it up and get it running and when you open the doors and feel like you’ve solved it,” she said. “But that’s just the beginning, and you’ve yet to figure out how to keep it operating within permitting guidelines every day while also making a huge annual operating loss.”

Some people think the answers depend on finding more ways to spread the load.

Adam Alson is the executive chairman of Appleseed Childhood Education in Jasper County, which plans to open a 70-place center sometime in 2022. He said strong partnerships are the reason it can work; A local community foundation helped collect and provide seed funding, and an experienced non-profit childcare organization will manage the center. This allows board members to focus on raising money – because childcare is not a profitable industry.

“It’s Appleseed’s responsibility to find the building that we have, and it’s our responsibility to fund the annual operating loss that the center will generate,” he said.

It’s not an entirely new concept. A small center in nearby Goodland opened a year ago using the same model and is already making an impact. A parent opened a new coffee shop because their son started going there.

Brienne Hooker is the executive director of the Jasper Newton Foundation, the group that helps facilitate community partnerships and seed funding for Appleseed and other centers. She said people who live in rural communities are not there by accident.

“I mean, we’re living in a Hallmark movie, aren’t we? That’s what I think. So we appreciate this space, we appreciate the quiet, we appreciate the sunrises and sunsets, we appreciate the little schools,” she said.

Part of maintaining that value, she said, means keeping a variety of quality early childhood learning and care options available to families who need them.

“Early childhood education, with a focus on zero to three and zero to five — before formal education begins — is just, you know, raising the tide that lifts all boats.” She said.

There are policy changes that could help rural daycares like Perry stay open and ease the financial burden on groups like Appleseed. Emerson, Hooker, and Alson all suggest that state or local government funding specifically designed for rural providers would be a start. And a review – with some possible revisions – of the long and comprehensive list of licensing rules wouldn’t hurt either. Emerson said some of the methods used to collect and analyze data on rural Indiana childcare also needed updating.

More and more people are taking notice, especially as the pandemic adds to the challenges for families and providers. A bill in the Legislature – HB 1052 – would direct the state to ensure that federal funds are applied fairly to different counties. During the pandemic, millions of dollars in grants have been made available to providers and families to help more Hoosiers find and afford care.

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But many other changes are needed — including at the federal level — and parents who are still struggling don’t have time to wait.

For now, Emerson, Alson, and Hooker agree that it’s up to rural communities to decide whether or not they want childcare, and to commit to every decision they make.

“Ultimately, the federal funds aren’t going to the rural areas, the state funds aren’t necessarily going to the rural areas in Jasper and Newton counties. And for us to solve this problem, we have to solve it on the ground,” Alson said.

Schank, the Perry County CFO and parent, said if communities decide against it, it’s not just Perry Preschool and Child Care that is at risk of closing for good.

“You must support the children of the community if you want your community to grow. Because if you don’t grow, you die,” Schank said.

Contact reporter Jeanie at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

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