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Childcare shortage vexes eco devo efforts
Decline in childcare providers hits rural areas
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Barton County, like most Kansas counties, suffers from a childcare shortage, a shortage that hinders economic growth and frustrates parents, said Great Bend Economic Development Inc. President Sara Hayden in a report to the City Council Monday night.  

“We have seen statistics showing that Barton County has close to 700 children who are in need of childcare,” Hayden said, citing numbers from the Salina-based Child Care Aware of Kansas. “That tells us that we really need to come up with some kind of a support network to be able to help to solve that problem.”

This relates directly to the issue of the community’s workforce and workforce development, she said. If parents can’t get back into the workforce because they can’t find childcare, then that impacts their broader efforts.

Speaking to the workforce issue, a recent survey of 91 Great Bend employers showed that 85% need to hire right now, or will be hiring in the in the near future, Hayden said. The respondents also noted their number one problem is finding employees, employees who will need childcare. 

“We’re working closely with Garden City,” she said. “They have created a great support network solution.”

The Finney County Childcare and Early Learning Network board was formed in 2019 and began work in identifying spaces that could accommodate childcare. The group has been awarded tax credits to help expand services to address long-term workforce requirements in the growing community.

Great Bend wants to duplicate that success, Hayden said. The plan here is to put together a task force working together with the schools, major employers, the city and county, and childcare providers in the community “so that we again can create this support network,” Hayden said.

Not alone

Great Bend and Barton County are not alone his this struggle, said Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, a nonprofit referral service that reports child care supply and demand. According to 2020 data, 37% of the state’s 105 counties have one childcare slot for every 10 infants and toddlers, and 17% have no openings.

“It’s very pervasive,” Davydov said.

Between 2017 and 2020, the number of in-home daycare providers dropped from 2,915 to 2,259. While group facilities and childcare centers increased in numbers slightly, it is the so-called family childcare programs are the backbone of childcare in rural communities, she said.

“This is partially due to the pandemic, but that is not the only reason,” she said. “There is just a downward trend.”

In April 2020, 17% of Kansas providers reported closing temporarily because of COVID-19. That percentage fluctuates, but there is still an impact.

Breaking down Barton County’s numbers further, Davydov said there are 21-30 kids three and younger for every childcare opening.

“Kansas employers need child care in order to attract and retain a productive workforce that builds the Kansas economy,” she said. “Parents need child care in order to work and provide for their families. It is all interrelated.”

Parents are forced to cobble together childcare plans, Davydov said. This is frustrating for them, and may mean the children don’t get the benefit of having trained providers.

Seeking funding

“The state has made rural childcare a focus for the year,” Hayden said. This means that there will be grant funding available.

She said she can’t release too many details on this, “but, we’ve got a tight time line on this,” she said. “We need to find our problems and come up with some solutions quickly so that we are able to get in on that funding package that will be coming in May.”

Now, they are in their first phase of fact finding. Then, in the coming weeks, they will be ready to put forward to form a task force.

Third Ward Councilman Cory Urban asked about the number of kids needing childcare. “Is that more of a function of existing daycare being too expensive, or a function of not having enough daycare?”

“Both. It definitely comes down to a combination of needing childcare and needing affordable childcare,” Hayden said. Childcare can cost around $600 per month for one child, so parents face a dilemma and may have to weigh the value of going back to work.

“Again, it’s not just a Great Bend or a Barton county thing. This is this is a focus for rural communities all across the state,” she said.

There were problems before COVID-19, she said. “But virtual learning came around and those issues that were there have been exacerbated.”