Juneau Assembly poised to commit $1M to child care providers

Tim Lopez skates with his daughter Samantha Lopez as a way to pass the time with her on March 17, 2020, in Juneau. Typically the 2-year-old would have been at Little Eagles and Ravens Nest, or LEARN  in the middle of the day but it had closed. The facility has since reopened but with different protocols in place. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

At a special meeting on Thursday, the Juneau Assembly is expected to pass a measure to give licensed child care providers cash to help them open — and stay open — through the end of the year.

Before the pandemic, city officials identified a lack of affordable child care as a key hurdle keeping new parents from working and generally gumming up the economy. When COVID-19 health mandates ramped up in March, child care centers with long waitlists shut down.

Now, with health mandates being relaxed, daycares have been reopening with new practices to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, including reduced capacity. Which isn’t really financially viable for most of these businesses.

“Child care facilities are already operating on a really small margin, so that creates a pretty big need for financial assistance if they’re not going to be operating at full capacity,” said Laura Martinson, a member of the city’s economic stabilization task force who researched child care in Juneau and helped develop the grant program. “They need financial assistance to cover the enrollment shortages.”

The Juneau Assembly plans to vote on an emergency measure to let money start flowing in June. It would commit $1,057,000 of federal CARES Act relief money.

The program would initially give licensed child care providers roughly half of what they’d get in tuition if they were at capacity; up to $500 per child a month.

In September, the subsidy would change to $250 per full-time child that is actually enrolled.

It would end with the calendar year. Or, at least, the CARES Act funding of it. Before the pandemic, city officials were discussing a stipend program to increase child care capacity and make it more affordable. Funding for that non-emergency child care program is in the city’s proposed budget.

But, the pandemic filled that budget with uncertainties. City Manager Rorie Watt has been urging Assembly members to fund it sustainably, that is, by raising taxes or cutting other operating expenses.

Little Eagles and Ravens Nest, or LEARN, is one child care center that reopened earlier this month with a lot of changes.

“So no parents in the building — we’re calling it curbside pick-up and drop-off for children,” said administrator Jaime Shanley.

LEARN just got licensed in February, and its enrollment was filling up. When it reopened, she said she lost about 30% of the enrollment for a variety of reasons.

“Some of them are laid off, and so they can’t afford child care any more,” she said. “Some of them are still working from home so they don’t need child care right now. And some, I think, are just uneasy about getting their children cared for in a setting like this.”

And they’ve got new expenses and work duties: like more frequent janitorial services, daily health screenings, sanitizing toys and wearing protective gear.

Much of why LEARN can operate right now is because it’s financially backed by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. It’s run more like a government service than a business.

But Shanley said the city’s grant program will help LEARN and other child care providers weather the uncertainty, and avoid layoffs and closures.

“What I’m excited about … is just the recognition from the city on the importance of this industry, and how it’s really the backbone of an economy. And a successful working class of people, you have to have stable child care and quality child care,” she said.

Shanley said it has been a long time coming.

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