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Daycare availability critical to COVID-19 recovery

Kimmel

NEW ULM — Access to child care is critical in attracting families and businesses to Greater Minnesota and in facilitating COVID-19 recovery, according to the participants in a Zoom forum Saturday.

The forum was hosted by Mindy Kimmel, DFL candidate for the Minnesota House District 16B seat, and Little Rascals Learning Center.

The forum’s goal was explore the status of childcare in Brown and Redwood counties.

Kimmel is running against Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska).

Kimmel began the forum with a statistic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 74% of Minnesota households with children under six had all parents in the workforce. Kimmel said business leaders in Greater Minnesota have voiced comments about the lack of childcare. Businesses consider the access to childcare a top priority in deciding in what community to locate. Families also consider where to move based on daycare access. Currently, there are 40,000 childcare spaces needed in Greater Minnesota alone.

The first question of the forum was, what part does the availability of childcare play in recovering from the COVID crisis?

The owner of Little Rascals Learning Center Jen Eckstein said her center could not take a large number of new families at this time. There is an effort to restrict the number of people entering the building, to reduce the risk of COVID spreading.

Julia Young, a teacher at Washington Learning Center, said it is imperative that childcare be available if there is any hope of recovering from COVID. As a teacher, Young is expected to go back to work, and her kids will need to go to daycare if she is going to teach other children.

“To move past this, we need a place for them to go, so we can go back to work,” Young said.

Eckstein agreed a backup plan was needed for teachers and other professionals, outside of normal daycare. Centers that can take drop-ins or part-time families are a need in the community.

Sara Ska, a mother of three, said that when COVID hit, she was on maternity leave. But eventually, at-home work became a necessity, and along with distance learning, it was a struggle. She and her husband were next called back into work outside the home, and daycare cannot be found on short notice.

Forum moderator Preston Meyer said that even families working from home during the pandemic struggle with childcare, as it can still jeopardize employment. He asked if there were any government regulations or reasonable changes to daycare that could help.

Young said there needed to be a happy medium between keeping kids safe and common-sense regulations.

Eckstein said it is a challenge for her center to meet the expectation of parents, government and outsiders who don’t understand the full restrictions. She said people without children in daycare sometimes don’t understand the procedure for dealing with behavior issues and that leads to people falsely reporting providers.

In addition, certain broad regulations are hard to follow. A daycare provider is required to have a certain amount and type of toys per child, even if that child is not attending that day. This could mean a child has way too many toy options, but it could also lead to a center being written up for a minor infraction. As an example, she said a center could receive a negative report for missing three build blocks. This would be written up as having “inadequate resources” for a child, which sounds worse than it is.

Meyer asked what the justification was for the toy count.

Eckstein said there were regulations regarding the number of cognitive and manipulative items required per child. A center would be written up for having damaged toys or books. Eckstein said the problem is, these items do get damaged through wear and tear. A toddler will chew on a book cover, and if licensors see a damaged book, that could go on a report.

Ashley Domeier, Assistant Director at Little Rascals, said there can sometimes be different interpretations of the regulations because of the wording. It creates a mixed message. Domeier said some of the gray areas on regulations needed to be fixed. In addition, there are different regulations for at-home providers and daycare centers, which increases confusion.

“We need to be on the same page,” she said.

Eckstein said rule interpretation can change between different licensed inspectors.

Barb Dietz, Brown County Human Service Director, said there were many people unaware that at-home daycares and centers were regulated differently. Depending on the type of daycare, different limits are in place on the number of children. Also, different regulations are in place about who could care for the children.

Eckstein said it would be beneficial to have a local person to speak with about daycare center regulations.

The regulations get further complicated for daycare centers located in schools. At-school daycare centers must follow the same regulations as other daycare centers, but do not necessarily see the same level of inspection because it is a school setting.

“Inspections are good, but it would be nice if there was someone who understood all the rules,” Eckstein said. “But there are different sets of rules for everyone.”

Local parent Virginia Suker Moldan said home-based businesses are popular with parents, but she believes many are too scared to start a daycare because of fear over the regulations.

Eckstein agreed people worried about their reputations.

“If something goes wrong, you are the black sheep of the daycare providers,” Eckstein said.

The forum discussed the possibility of forming a group of providers to discuss potential changes that could be presented to legislators.

There was a question of whether businesses had a responsibility to assist employers with securing daycare. Currently, no laws or regulations require employers to support employees’ daycare. Some businesses have considered on-site daycare, but have not followed through.

Kimmel said the Mayo Clinic in Rochester has a backup childcare site at the hospital. Since many in the Rochester community work for Mayo, it is seen as a reasonable service. Kimmel was uncertain if there was any company in the region large enough to support a daycare center.

The final question of the forum was, where should the childcare discussion go from here.

Domeier believes providers and the community need to work together to clear up regulations.

Dietz said a balance should be found between protecting children and requirements that were too stringent.

Early Childhood and Family Educator Betty Uehling said childcare affordability was still an issue. She said there is only so much families, especially young families, can afford.

Meyer said this was information that legislator should give a second look. He hopes the conversation would spur on further efforts to make a difference in the industry.

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