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Child care center in rural Indiana relies on parents to voluntarily help out


In rural communities, parents of young children are facing some tough choices made even more difficult because of the pandemic. A huge concern is properly staffing child care centers. It's nearly impossible to do. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Jeanie Lindsay reports.

JEANIE LINDSAY, BYLINE: The scarcity of child care in rural places has been a huge problem for years now, from not enough people to work in child care to not enough funding to pay those who do. It's a constant challenge. Paige Schank is the chief financial officer for the local utility here in Tell City, a small Indiana town along the Kentucky border with a population of a little more than 7,000. This morning, Schank is using vacation time from her job so she can volunteer at her kids' child care center. Two staff members called in sick today, and a third is taking a pre-planned day off.

PAIGE SCHANK: We can share it. Can we share it?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know.

SCHANK: So I was in an 8 o'clock meeting, meeting got over, told my boss. Thankfully, he's very, very understanding. And I've been here the last three hours (laughter) in ratio.

LINDSAY: That ratio is crucial because licensing rules limit the number of kids per staff member in each room. Without Schank here, the center would have been forced to turn families away this morning. It's happened before.

SCHANK: When it was closed and we were concerned that everything was closing, I called around town. Nobody - nobody would take them.

LINDSAY: She's one of several parents volunteering hours of their time here each week to keep the county's only licensed child care center open. Erin Emerson is the center's board president. There's a sense of despair and exhaustion in her voice as she describes what it takes to staff the center.

ERIN EMERSON: COVID added an entirely new layer of difficulty to something that was already impossibly difficult.

LINDSAY: Essentially, the difficulty boils down to two things - a lack of sustainable financial support and a complex web of licensing rules that aren't really designed for rural centers. Emerson says it can take at least a month to process everything for a new hire - things like fingerprinting requirements and mandatory training. And as the pandemic drags on, people aren't sticking around for a difficult job paying only $9 an hour.

EMERSON: There are people that are no longer willing to work for poverty-level wages. And when that's what you're paying, it really caused a fundamental shift.

LINDSAY: That shift can have big consequences for families. Unpredictable closures mean working parents have to lean on their employers or their families. Some have no choice but to quit their jobs. One family in Tell City is considering selling their house and moving to Louisville, where child care options are easier to find.

It's not just a problem here. Rasheed Malik is the director of Early Childhood Policy for the Center for American Progress. He says the structure of child care tilts away from those with limited opportunities.

RASHEED MALIK: We have a mostly private market-based system that has only been able to cater to people with the most resources.

LINDSAY: He says across the country, we've lost 1 out of every 10 child care workers during the pandemic, and those numbers aren't recovering like they are in other industries.

Back in Tell City, Paige Schank says if child care doesn't get more local buy-in, both in terms of staffing and funding, it won't just be the child care center at risk of shutting down.

SCHANK: You have to support the kids of the community if you want your community to grow, because if you're not growing, you're dying.

LINDSAY: And until relief comes with either the end of the pandemic or an increase in public funding, she says she'll do everything she can to keep this child care center open for her family and others who want to stay here.

LAURA: Bye, girls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Bye, Miss Laura (ph).

LINDSAY: For NPR News, I'm Jeanie Lindsay.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAJ MENDEL'S "TERAI-DUAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeanie Lindsay

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