Education

Many Anchorage families are scrambling to find child care as the school year begins

Anchorage families are struggling to find child care as the school year begins, with many unable to get into the program of their choice or ending up on waitlists.

Day care providers say they are having a hard time hiring staff, meaning fewer spots available for children looking to be enrolled in before- and after-school programs.

According to Stephanie Berglund, CEO of Thread Alaska, a nonprofit connecting Alaska families to child care, it isn’t that child care facilities don’t want to serve more children — it’s that they can’t.

“It’s not necessarily because of smaller group sizes of COVID,” Berglund said. “It’s now strictly because of a shortage of the workforce.”

It’s a problem happening at child care facilities locally and nationally.

In Alaska, as with the rest of the U.S., many employers are struggling to find workers. And child care programs often have a hard time attracting and retaining staff due to low wages. The average wage for a child care worker in Alaska is $14.40 an hour, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. In Anchorage and the Mat-Su, it’s $13.96.

Competitors are able to offer hiring bonuses, and additional sign-on perks that child care facilities can’t, Berglund said.

At Camp Fire Alaska, the state’s largest child care provider, CEO Barbara Dubovich said the organization was serving anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 kids a day pre-COVID. Now, it’s a portion of that.

“Roughly, we’re at 70% of the number of youth that we served pre-COVID,” Dubovich said.

Beginning on Aug. 18, Camp Fire will be operating 12 programs, all of which have waitlists. Before the pandemic, they were running 30.

Camp Fire is actively recruiting people to work in their before- and after-school programs. It takes a “particular individual” to make a split-shift schedule work, Dubovich said. Camp Fire’s programs run from 7 a.m to 9 a.m., and again from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. That narrows the field of candidates, she said.

Camp Fire employs more than 100 people, but before COVID-19 employed anywhere from 175 to 200 people.

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“We have to be extremely realistic, that there’s a workforce shortage in our community and definitely within child care,” Dubovich said.

The challenge means some parents are forced to get creative. Tamara Garner received an email last week from the Anchorage School District, saying hours had changed for preschool, making it impossible for her or her husband to drop off their 4-year-old son in the mornings.

“I’ve got to be at work at 9 in the morning, so it leaves me hanging,” Garner said.

Her son is enrolled in a day care in East Anchorage, she said, but they don’t offer care when she needs it. The time change from the district forced her to look for before-school care for a couple of hours each morning.

She initially wanted to put her son in Camp Fire, but the location she was interested in isn’t available this year, she said. She considered enrolling her son in two different preschools so she wouldn’t have to find morning care. She reached out for help in a Facebook group.

“I offered a room for free,” Garner said. “If somebody could come and live in my home and just help for two hours in the morning … not one person wrote me back.”

Now, she is talking to another mom about watching her son in the mornings.

“I’m sure a lot of parents are really stressed out,” Garner said. “I’m just thankful that my work is pretty flexible … a lot of people’s works won’t.”

Amanda Butler, director of the Tanaina Child Development Center at Alaska Regional Hospital, said her staff fields “probably 15 to 20 calls a day” from families looking for child care, but they are now fully enrolled.

Butler tells people who are planning families to start the hunt for child care early.

“People are getting on the list right when they’re starting to have kids,” Butler said. “If you’re planning on having a family, get on every waitlist you can — is what I tell them.”

During the hunker-down order in the spring of 2020, the center had fewer kids enrolled, and Butler was forced to lay off staff. At one point, just seven people were working there, Butler said, including her.

The center is now back to where it was before the pandemic, serving 89 children with 22 employees.

She said she’s tried to hire substitute teachers to give her staff a break, but to no avail. Many applicants don’t show up for interviews, Butler said.

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“It’s not a lack of applicants, it’s a lack of commitment or follow-through,” she said. “We’ll do the interview process, the orientation and they don’t stay.”

“We do interviews all the time and are always looking for new hires,” Butler said.

Berglund with Thread Alaska said she hopes Alaskans take the situation as an opportunity to offer more support to the child care sector.

“If we want to retain and attract a workforce talent — if we want Alaskans to get back to work, we have to make child care more important and more a part of that economic infrastructure,” she said.

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