The last licensed child care center in the Northwest Alaska community of Kotzebue closed more than 10 years ago. Now, a local mother and daughter are working to fill the gap as the need increases.
Bailey and Tracey Schaeffer are preparing to run an in-home child care facility in Kotzebue. They’re in the process of getting their license, funding, safety equipment, furniture and toys to prepare their house to serve — ideally — around 12 children from infancy up to 5 years old, starting in mid-July.
“The last licensed child care place here closed in 2011, and nobody has tried to open one since,” said Bailey Schaeffer, who now works as an intensive special aide for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District and plans to be the caretaker in the new facility. “We are just in dire need right now. ... We just really need more workers and a safe place for the kids to go.”
To highlight the new child care facility and the need for services in the Kotzebue area, social worker Laura Norton-Cruz and filmmaker Joshua Albeza Branstetter in April released a documentary, “At Home / In Home: Rural Alaska Childcare in Crisis.” The 25-minute film was screened in Juneau last month to spark a conversation with state lawmakers about the lack of child care in Kotzebue.
“The room was filled,” Norton-Cruz said. “There were school board members from rural communities who happened to be in town. And then there were 13 legislators. ... I was very happy with that turnout.”
Few, if any, options
In a town of more than 3,000 people, about 500 are children younger than 9, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Without a state-licensed center, Kotzebue is considered a child care desert — a community that doesn’t have access to child care within a reasonable distance, according to Nolan Klouda, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Economic Development, who spoke in the film.
The issue is not unique to Kotzebue. Klouda said that in Anchorage, there are pockets of the population that can’t afford or can’t get a spot at day care. The number of workers in child care dropped during the pandemic and has never recovered to pre-pandemic levels, Klouda said.
According to a 2022 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, almost 13% of Alaska parents surveyed with children under age 5 had cut their work hours to care for children.
[Caught in the middle: Alaska needs more child care to aid economic recovery, but facilities are pinched]
This was the case for Cassia Teuscher. A mother of two children, ages 4 and 1, Teuscher lived in Kotzebue for about 10 years and most recently worked as a teacher. When she and her husband adopted their second child, they faced the challenge of looking for affordable child care — and couldn’t find it.
“It was more affordable for me not to have a job,” she said, “just because the child care that was there is so expensive.”
But even after Teuscher became a stay-at-home parent, she still struggled to find after-school activities and development opportunities for her children. Because of that, her family decided to leave Kotzebue and move to Anchorage.
“It was hard but it was also nice to have that change and give our kids some opportunities here in Anchorage that Kotzebue does not have,” she said.
A new facility in Kotzebue
Bailey and her mother Tracey Schaeffer have been aware of the need for child care in their hometown for a long time, so when Bailey Schaeffer was able to buy a spacious house in November 2022, the mother and daughter decided to take action and open an in-home child care center.
Tracey Schaeffer, who has worked as an occupational therapist for 30 years at the school district, plans to be an administrator at the facility while Bailey will work with children. They want to provide a safe space for parents to drop off their kids and offer development place-based activities.
“Just really kind of connecting kids to where they are and the things that happen,” Tracey Schaeffer said. “That’s kind of our vision.”
Tracey Schaeffer has received a child care license through the tribal health provider, Maniilaq Association. The license will allow the facility to take in four children per staff member. Now she’s in the process of getting licensed through the state, which will allow eight children per adult. Bailey Schaeffer is going through the same licensing process.
“It’s a town with a lot of young families and a lot of young children, so the need is pretty great,” said Norton-Cruz, who has been advocating for improved access to child care statewide. “Since we have zero places providing child care, even having it for 10 kids would be a victory.”
The initial steps to set up the facility were not easy: The two worked hard to research the process but would receive confusing and conflicting instructions.
“That’s kind of been my second job,” Tracey Schaeffer said. “It’s been a long process already, you know, a long and challenging process of submitting and resubmitting and fixing this and changing that. ... I can see why people don’t do it, very clearly.”
While the duo have been applying for several grants through such organizations as Maniilaq Association and thread Alaska, some of the expenses they have to cover out of pocket, Tracey Schaeffer said.
“And then you do wonder, like, will I ever make it back?” Tracey Schaeffer said. “Is it just gonna pay off, you know, at some point? Because it is a business, it’s not just a service.”
Investing in child care
In Norton-Cruz’s eyes, the Schaeffers’ example speaks to how it’s helpful to have a public investment in child care in order to keep child care facilities open.
“Child care holds up the rest of the economy and the rest of society,” Norton-Cruz said. “If we want there to be child care so that we have a functioning economy and functioning families and healthy child development, we have to pay for people to be able to do it.”
[Gov. Dunleavy announces Alaska child care task force but declines to support immediate funding boost]
Alaska’s child care shortage costs the state $165 million per year in lost economic activity, according to a 2021 report commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
In April, child care providers asked lawmakers to add $15 million to the state budget to boost provider wages. Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he did not support the request but announced the creation of a task force to come up with policy solutions to address the shortage of child care options.
An amendment to increase the child care grant to supplement provider wages failed, so the Alaska House budget didn’t include it. However, the Senate added the $15 million boost to its version of the budget on April 26, which is poised to be part of final budget negotiations.
Meanwhile, Tracey Schaeffer said she hopes to create a domino effect and inspire other Northwest Arctic residents to start child care centers
“Looking at our community, from what I understand about trauma and adverse early childhood experiences, I mean, as a community, that should be one of our No. 1 objectives, if we want our community to thrive,” Tracey Schaeffer said. “These are the next generation, they’re going to take care of this place. They’re going to be the adults in this place, and what can we do for them, to facilitate them to be successful, happy, healthy, engaged community members?”