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Rural Hoosier communities rally as COVID-19 worsens child care crisis for parents, providers

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Alan Mbathi/IPB News
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Fewer people and resources in rural areas mean the challenges many providers face, like maintaining adequate staffing, are more difficult to find solutions for.

Listen to the radio version of this story as it aired on Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations.

The sounds coming from inside Perry Preschool and Child Care on this brisk fall morning suggest just how hectic things are today. Two staff called in and aren't coming to work, while a third is taking a pre-planned day off. 

Paige Schank is the chief financial officer for the Tell City Electric Department. This isn't her typical morning; today she's using vacation time to volunteer at the center where her two kids come for care.

"So I was in an 8 o'clock meeting, the meeting got over, I told my boss. Thankfully, he's very, very understanding. And I've been here the last three hours – in ratio," she said.

That ratio is important, 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 at the door this morning. 

It's happened before. 

"The world stops, and you're like, 'this is way more important than I thought it was at first,'" Schank said. "You don't know how bad you need it until it's gone."

The center is so understaffed, it's been closed just as often as it's been open in the past six months. But Schank being here isn't a fix-all; she can't volunteer in the rooms her kids are in, and she has to go back to her actual job soon.

Erin Emerson is the executive director of the Perry County Economic Development Corporation, and is the president of Perry Preschool and Child Care's volunteer board. There's a sense of despair and exhaustion in her voice as she describes what it's been like running the center lately. 

"COVID added an entirely new layer of difficulty to something that was already impossibly difficult," she said.

Essentially, it boils down to two things: a lack of sustainable financial support and a complex web of licensing rules. Because of those, combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, staffing in particular has been an increasingly difficult problem to solve.

Hiring people takes a lot of time because of different requirements and training needed before they start the job, and that makes it tough to find and keep them on board. Fingerprinting for potential hires is done once a week in Perry County, meaning it could take weeks – sometimes more than a month – to process every part of an applicant's materials, especially when business offices close more often around the holidays.

And as the pandemic changes the workforce landscape, people aren't sticking around for $9 an hour anymore. 

"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," Emerson said. 

It's just one example of how limited services in the rural county come with major consequences.

Unpredictable or even planned closures mean parents trying to return to work, like Schank, have to rely on their workplaces and family members for support. Some parents quit their jobs. One family is considering selling their house to move somewhere with more – or any – options.

Emerson doesn't blame families for wanting to leave. It's difficult to find solutions for everything it takes to keep the center open without raising costs for families. Enthusiasm from community funders has waned over time, and management of the center has fallen to Emerson and others willing to take on the extra work.

"It's really exciting when you get a center going and you raise the money to get it up and going, and you open the doors and you feel like you've solved it," she said. "But that is only the beginning, and you still have to figure out how to keep it in operation every single day according to licensing guidelines, while also running a tremendous annual operating loss."

Some people think answers hinge on finding more ways to share the load. 

Adam Alson is the board president of Appleseed Childhood Education in Jasper County, which plans to open a 70-seat center sometime in 2022. He said strong partnerships are why it can work; a local community foundation helped collect and provide startup funding, and an experienced child care nonprofit will manage the center. That allows board members to focus on raising money – because child care isn't a money-making industry.

"It's Appleseed's responsibility to find the building, which we have, and it is our responsibility to fund the annual operating loss the center will generate," he said.

It's not an entirely new concept. A small center in nearby Goodland opened a year ago with the same model, and it's already having an impact. One parent opened a new café because her son started going there. 

Brienne Hooker is the executive director of the Jasper Newton Foundation, the group helping facilitate community partnerships and startup funding for Appleseed and other centers. She said people living in rural communities aren't there by accident. 

"I mean, we live in a Hallmark movie, right? That's what I think. So we value this space, we value the quiet, we value the sunrises and sunsets, we value the small schools," she said.

Part of maintaining that value, she said, means keeping different high-quality early learning and care options available for families who need them. 

"Early childhood education, with a concentration on that zero to three, and zero to five – before formal education starts – is just, you know, raising the tide that raises all boats." she said.

There are policy changes that could help rural child care centers like Perry stay open and ease the financial burden on groups like Appleseed. Emerson, Hooker and Alson all suggest government or community funding designed specifically for rural providers would be a start. And a review – with some possible revisions – of the long and comprehensive list of licensing rules wouldn't hurt either. Emerson said some of the methods for collecting and analyzing data on rural child care in Indiana need updating too. 

More people are taking notice, especially as the pandemic adds to the challenges families and providers face. A proposed bill in the legislature – HB 1052 – would direct the state to ensure federal funding is applied fairly to different counties. During the pandemic, millions of dollars in grant funding has been awarded to providers and families to help more Hoosiers find and afford care. 

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But plenty of other changes are still needed – including at the federal level – and parents who are still struggling don't have time to wait. 

For now, Emerson, Alson and Hooker all agree that it's up to rural communities to decide if they want child care or not, and commit to whatever decision they make.

"At the end of the day, federal funding doesn't get to rural areas, state funding doesn't necessarily get to rural areas in Jasper and Newton counties. And so in order for us to solve this problem, we have to solve it locally," Alson said. 

Schank, the CFO and parent from Perry County, said if communities decide not to, it won't just be Perry Preschool and Child Care at risk of closing for good.

"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," Schank said.

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

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