Parents with kids enrolled in Anchorage child care are being turned away because there’s not enough staff

In May, Tiffany Hall began to dread looking at her phone in the morning.

Hall, a single mother to a 4-year-old and an infant, relied on child care to allow her to focus on her work as the executive of a statewide nonprofit. She thought that because she’d secured a spot for her older daughter at the Woodland Park Boys & Girls Club, a program housed in a friendly-looking building surrounded by soccer fields in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood, daily child care was guaranteed.

But during the spring, something strange started to happen: Hall would wake up to a notification from the facility telling her that due to “unexpected staff absences,” the classroom capacity would be capped for the day. Only the first 10 children to arrive could stay. The rest would be turned away, leaving Hall and other parents staring down a workday with a toddler unexpectedly in tow.

Hall was experiencing a phenomenon child care experts say has become more prominent and common since the coronavirus pandemic: Child care centers are so thinly staffed that a single staff absence can force centers to close classrooms or cap capacity with little notice in order to maintain strict safety ratios mandated by the state.

All this has left parents in a previously unthinkable situation: Even those who’ve endured long waitlists and high costs of just enrolling their children can’t predict if they’ll be able to actually use that care.

In May, the pattern escalated, Hall said. She went to bed not knowing if she could send her child to care in the morning. She began to dread the notification from the Procare app on her phone. Tension in the house percolated. Hall began waking her baby and 4-year-old up early, by 6:45 a.m., in order to arrive at the Boys & Girls Club by its opening time of 7:30 a.m. in hopes they would be early enough to secure a spot for the day.

[Alaska lawmakers pass child care legislation to buoy sector ‘in crisis’]


One day toward the end of May, things came to a head. She had hustled the kids into the Boys & Girls Club by 7:22 a.m., but ran into a crowd of parents and children in the hallway who’d done the same thing, waiting for the doors to click open.

Only the first kids in the room would get to stay for the day. The others would be sent home. Suddenly there was a desperate feeling in the hallway. Hall filmed a 15-second video with her phone: Stressed-out parents hoisting toddlers on their hips, wearing expressions like the ones you see on people in the waiting area of an indefinitely delayed flight. Babies cried.

“Aaargh!” one bearded dad mock yelled for the camera, capturing the vibe.

She posted the clip to Facebook: “This is what a child care crisis looks like,” she wrote. “This video was taken this morning at 7:22am, 8 minutes before our child care center opens. 13 of the past 17 days they’ve denied care to paying families. What can we do??”

She was not alone. Other parents chimed in, describing times when they, too, had shown up at child care centers only to be turned away because classrooms were maxed out due to insufficient staff.

One of the worst things, Hall said, was how it pitted parents against each other.

“We used to hold doors open. Wait. Go slowly. Now people are speeding into parking lot, not holding doors,” she said.

One morning there was a “little stampede” to get in the door. A mother was separated from her 4-year-old.

“It was just insanity,” she said. “We all became the worst versions of ourselves.”

A post-COVID phenomenon

The instability comes down to persistent difficulties in hiring and retaining staff, and the need to guarantee strict, licensing-mandates safety ratios, said Susan Anderson, the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southcentral Alaska. The statewide nonprofit provides care to more than 7,600 children through a network of after-school programs and child development centers for younger kids, including the Woodland Park Boys & Girls Club in Spenard.

Anderson, a nonprofit veteran who became the organization’s leader in 2023, said the pandemic years illustrated how crucial child care is to not only the early development of the children themselves, but to the economy.

Especially since the pandemic, the job market for qualified workers has been tight.

“Child care workers are in high demand and they’re difficult to find,” she said.

At the Boys & Girls Club in Spenard, Anderson said, they had to shut down an entire pre-K classroom because there simply weren’t enough teachers. Children who were already enrolled in the school were entered into a lottery to see if they could keep their spots and stay. But even offering some of the higher wages for classroom positions in town, around $17 an hour to start, it has been difficult to find and keep enough workers.

Municipal licensing requires strict child-to-staff ratios, Anderson said. “When you only have so many people and you have to stay in safety ratio, sometimes unfortunately that means the day of, you have to consolidate classrooms,” she said.

[Earlier coverage: Alaska child care providers struggle to stay open as pandemic-era relief funds dry up]

Calling short notice closures or caps is the last thing a center wants to do, Anderson said.


“We have to make an extremely difficult decision because we need to get our staffing up, have a bench,” she said. “Which takes time. Everyone is looking for child care folks.”

The Boys & Girls Club hopes to reopen another classroom in August, and the day-of closures that plagued the spring have slowed, according to Hall. Parents are reimbursed for days their child wasn’t able to go to care they’d already paid for, Anderson said.

‘Trying to figure this out’

The instability has had major consequences for some families, including job changes and upset children, said Elana Habib.

Habib had avoided the most recent capacity cap days at the Boys & Girls Club, but had other problems. She had been working as a self-employed consultant, billing in 15-minute increments, in the winter of 2022 when the child care center her daughter attended had similar staff issues.

[Alaska’s business advocates call for making child care a priority]

Some days her child couldn’t attend, and Habib had to miss working hours. Eventually, she moved to a state job that offered more flexibility. The inconsistency in child care was “one of the major factors,” she said.

“Every time it was closed, I was just losing money,” Habib said.

But the care was affordable, and she lived nearby. Waitlists for other centers were long.


The Boys & Girls Club offers some of the most affordable full-time child care in Anchorage. Until recently, it was $850 per month but increased to around $1,135 for infants, $1,148 for toddlers and $1,019 for pre-k, according to a letter send to Woodland Park parents — better matching the State of Alaska’s child care reimbursement rate. By comparison, Hillcrest Child Development Center on Government Hill — also a nonprofit with a parent-run board, now charges $1,850, making them among the most expensive providers in the city.

Historically, the low wages paid to child care workers subsidized the lower — but still out-of-reach for many — prices parents paid, said Christina Eubanks-Ohana, the executive director of Hillcrest Child Development Center.

It’s no longer possible to pay the wages to employees because so many other options exist for similar jobs that require far less dedication and energy than caring for babies and children, she said. To get quality employees, you have to offer something special she said. Hillcrest has found staffing stability in offering workers more flexibility if not more money. The center’s starting hourly rate is less than the Boys & Girls Club. A 40-hour workweek isn’t what her potential employees are looking for, she said. Many are fitting in work around school, caring for family members or parenting.

“I have more staff than I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. Part of that is being realistic about the applicant pool.

“I hire people straight out of high school,” she said. “I expect this is going to be their first job. We’re going to do a lot of job coaching.”

Hall said during the time when Boys & Girls Club was unexpectedly closed or capped, she was sometimes able to send her older daughter to a nanny share.

When she did get there early enough for a spot, she had a “weird sense of guilt of taking it away from another family. What if somebody else is a shift worker and they will lose their job?” she said.

Eventually, Hall said she was worn down.

“I just thought, I am a single parent with two kids” and the leader of an organization, she said. “I deserve this just as much as anybody else does.”

[Alaska lawmakers move to double state support for Head Start early childhood programs]

Things have stabilized at the Spenard center, with fewer days beginning with a Procare capacity cap alert.

Habib pulled her daughter out of the Boys & Girls Club after what she said was so much change and instability that the girl never knew which classroom she’d be in, or which teacher she’d have, on any given day.


For Hall, the experience spurred her to activism. She sees a role for the state in subsidizing child care so that centers can pay more without raising rates for families. A task force convened by Gov. Mike Dunleavy is in the midst of developing recommendations for the state to tackle the challenges of child care in Alaska, focusing on access and affordability.

There’s an understanding that situations like the one at Boys & Girls Club this spring are unsustainable, she said. And there seems to be a will for change.

“A ton of people are trying to figure this out.”

[Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Elana Habib’s first name.]

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.