North Country eyes program to boost child care providers

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CANTON — The North Country could really use some new child care providers.

About 85% of the region was classified as a child care desert before COVID-19: That means there are far more children than spots in child care.

And during the pandemic, we’ve lost a lot of capacity, says Sarah Allen Taylor, from the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country.

COVID-19 pushed early retirements and burnout in the industry, says Taylor.

“We had already expected there to be a large rate of childcare attrition, but that accelerated in most places. Clayton County had a 17% loss and childcare capacity. Essex County was about 22%. Franklin County was 25%,” Taylor said.

That means even fewer spots are available, and it has families and employers feeling the
pinch, because without child care, many parents have struggled to return to work, especially women.

New grant program aims to bring providers online in child care deserts

That’s where the new Child Care Deserts Grant funding comes in, a new state initiative funded by federal stimulus money.

It’s putting $70 million towards getting new providers up and running across the state.

Nora Yates, from the New York State Office of Family and Children Services, says before this program, all their pandemic efforts have been about emergency funding, trying to keep already existing providers open. Now, they’re trying to look forward.

“The Child Care Desert initiative is forward-facing, finally, and really looking at building new programs and new providers out there where we desperately need it,” Yates said.

It works like this: people who are interested in becoming child care providers can receive help applying and getting licensed, and then money to help cover start-up costs once they open.

Details about the grant program can be found through the OFCS website.

Local child care resource and referral agencies have staff available to help.

Since late January, when the state announced the program, Yates says they’ve received over 1400 application requests.

The application portal opens in April and ends in May, so she says if you’re interested in becoming a child care provider, now is the time to do it.

Only one piece
of the puzzle

Child care experts in New York, and across the board, are cautiously optimistic about how much the program can help.

Dede Hill, the policy director for the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a non-profit focused on low-income families in New York, said

“The desert funding is really exciting. It’s a real opportunity for New York. However, it will only be effective if it is one among many strategies to address the state’s child care crisis,” Hill said.

Hill’s concern, which was echoed by her peers, is that child care as a business model was broken before the pandemic, and still is. “We could find ourselves in a situation where we have new childcare programs that close their doors in six months because the business model doesn’t work.”

She says child care still needs to be more affordable for more families, and child care workers need to be paid a livable wage.

Budget could aid industry

The good news is, more support for child care in New York may very well be coming. Governor Kathy Hochul proposed big increases in child care funding in her first executive budget proposal: including expanding subsidies to include more families, and providing more infrastructure support for child care providers.

In mid-March, the New York Senate and Assembly released their own budget proposals, which were even more ambitious than Hochul’s.

Hill called the proposals potentially transformational, “particularly the Senate proposal would drive significant sustained investment to the childcare workforce, and also to childcare subsidies, expanding subsidies to many more families.”

She says that kind of policy change and support would go a long way towards making the child care profession more desirable, and financially viable. That is absolutely crucial to getting more providers into the system, say child care advocates and experts.

Rose Blanchard worked as a child care provider for 16 years before joining the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country, the child care resource and referral center for Franklin, Essex, and Clinton counties.

She sees the new Desert Grant funding as a real step forward, and a shift in how New York treats child care.

“The exciting parts of this funding is the focus on the importance of childcare. It’s really promoting a whole program approach to supporting providers. It’s not just about getting them licensed, it’s about building them up for long term support and stability.”

Bureaucracy could
still get in the way

But Blanchard and other child care advocates say there are also a lot of potential challenges with the grant funding.

The program doesn’t provide any start-up funds, only giving providers money after they’re already up and running. That could shut out a lot of potential providers.

Blanchard says it’s also a tight timeline, in a licensing process that is notoriously detailed and time-consuming, “...you know, testing of paints, radon, water quality, and then there are training requirements. The timeline for qualifying for these funds is can be difficult for providers, but I know that we are working on supporting a number of them through the process.”

She hopes that new providers will be coming into a system they’ll want, and are financially capable of staying in. Advocates say that depends on the state budget, and continued investment into child care as a public good.

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