North Country children outnumber regulated care openings 6-to-1
By Adam Federman
For 27 years, Little Peaks preschool in Keene has been a cornerstone of life in the hamlet surrounded by the park’s highest mountains. One of the school’s original teachers, Anita Sayers, still works there. Katherine Brown, the school’s current director, also taught there in the late 1990s when her two children attended.
The school was founded in part because there were no other options for early childhood education in Keene. At the time, parents had to drive their kids to St. Agnes, a preschool in Lake Placid, which is a 40-minute round-trip commute, or come up with some other arrangement. Today Little Peaks occupies a wing of the Keene Community Center and has the feel of a well-worn, beloved place.
“It’s kind of like an institution now,” Brown said.
But in the last year or so the school’s board and the town have acknowledged a growing need among parents for more full-time child care options. Preschools like Little Peaks are not licensed by the state and therefore don’t have to jump through the same regulatory hoops that child care centers do. But that means they’re also limited in the services they can offer, which boils down to no more than three hours a day. At Little Peaks, doors open at 8:30 and the kids get picked up at 11:30.
For many families with two working parents this is not a realistic option. Brown said last year she had four families approach her about attending Little Peaks and they turned away because it didn’t offer a full day. And in Keene and Keene Valley there’s currently only one licensed family child care provider. She has been in business for 17 years and is fully booked for the next three years.
‘Child care deserts’
It’s a story that’s playing out across the Adirondack region. As family and group child care providers retire or simply get out of the business, they’re not being replaced. Licensing has become increasingly difficult and expensive. Making centers economically viable while paying staffers a living wage is a struggle. This has led to a growing disparity between the number of children who need care—especially infants and toddlers—and the number of slots in certified facilities.
The child care landscape is “bombed out and pitted,” said Jamie Basiliere, executive director of the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country.
In a recent report on “child care deserts” in the North Country, the council found that virtually every corner of the region has been impacted by the shortage of providers. Across all seven North Country counties, 86 percent of census tracts, which roughly accord with towns and villages, qualify as child care deserts where the number of young children exceeds the system’s capacity. According to the report, there are on average nearly six children for every child care slot in a regulated facility. In Franklin County, for example, there are 2,405 children ages birth to 5, but only 1,602 openings in child care programs. Since July 2019, a staggering 28 programs have closed.
The winnowing of options has made it more difficult for parents to continue to pursue their own secondary education or, in some cases, enter the workforce. It’s also a barrier to attracting young families to towns in the park, which are already grappling with long-term demographic decline and possible school closures.
If the region doesn’t find a way to invest in a more robust system, the council warned, the absence of providers will undermine “not only the advancement of today’s struggling families, but our entire economy and future.”
For the past year the Little Peaks school board has discussed the possibility of becoming a licensed child care center, which would allow it to expand its hours. In March the board voted in favor of the move and is now in the process of trying to get licensed as soon as possible.
“People have finally recognized that there’s a crisis for child care,” Brown said. “The need is great.”
For many families the shortage of providers or the prohibitive cost of enrolling in a child care center—up to $250 a week per child—means looking elsewhere for support. Some can rely on parents or relatives. But others find themselves having to make the choice to work or stay at home to take care of their children.
In 2019 Katie Falzetta was juggling two part-time jobs, one of them in the evening, and child care arrangements for her sons, then ages 1 and 4. Her husband worked at a manufacturing facility in Plattsburgh, where she had moved from Brooklyn to go to college. There were few affordable options that met their needs. For a while they relied on a friend whom Falzetta said she wasn’t able to pay as much as she would have liked.
“There’s a lot of that going on, where people are just trapped,” Falzetta said. “You know, like, ‘I can’t work because I don’t have child care.’”
But that spring the Child Care Coordinating Council received a $25,000 grant from the state to provide assistance to 10 families in Essex, Clinton and Franklin counties. According to Basiliere, it took them about 10 minutes to find 10 families who needed the help.
Falzetta’s was one of them. The assistance, about $1,800 for six months, has made a dramatic difference. She was able to get her younger son into a licensed family child care center. Her older son was then in pre-K. The stress and anxiety associated with finding reliable care evaporated and Falzetta was able to spend more time focusing on her own professional development. Falzetta increased her hours—nearly 35 hours a week instead of 15—and has gained invaluable experience and her employer’s trust.
But the grant was a one-time pilot program and has been discontinued, not a systemic reform. Regionwide there are very few subsidies for child care, according to the council’s report. Just a small fraction of families in the North Country receive financial support for child care. In an area where more than 30% of children from birth to 6 live at or below the poverty level, the cost of care is often prohibitive.
‘A tipping point’
According to the council, on average, households using child care in the North Country spend $8,320 a year for one child and a typical household may spend 35% of its income on child care.
“I think we’re almost at a tipping point where child care centers are out-charging the ability of parents to pay,” Basiliere said.
Uneven access to child care has also had a ripple effect on employers and the economy. The majority of employers in the North Country report regular absences or interruption due to employee child care needs, according to the council’s report. About half of the employers surveyed said the shortage hindered their ability to hire and retain employees.
One of the key factors reshaping the child care landscape is the retirement of long-time providers.Barbara Skiff has run a family child care center in Saranac Lake for 39 years and plans to close her doorsnext year. (Family child care centers can have up to six children. Group family settings allow up to 12 children, plus four additional school-age children, but must have a primary caregiver and at least one assistant.) She is almost 66 and has been at it long enough that she has looked after the children of children she once watched.
The work is demanding. Skiff puts in 10-hour days. There are few breaks, with the exception of a two-hour naptime usually spent cleaning, preparing and planning. She is on her feet most of the time. Providers must also keep up with the latest standards and regulations, which can be costly and time-consuming.
The work can also be isolating. Family providers are essentially on their own with the kids all day.
New providers often have to make changes to their home to comply with regulations. Startup costs can be significant. Despite the urgent need for more providers, it is not necessarily easy to build up a client base, which means it can often take several months for income to start.
“There’s no incentive for new people to get into this business,” Skiff said.
Child care providers need to see themselves as the highly skilled professionals they are, she said. And they also need to appreciate that in addition to providing child care they’re operating a small business.
Support networks have grown in recent years. Today there are more opportunities for providers to advance their education and credentials. There’s more funding for child care conferences and training. The online community of providers has helped to counter feelings of isolation.
Quality Stars NY, a voluntary rating program, has been working in the North Country since 2010. There are now 20 providers participating in the program in Franklin, Essex, and Clinton Counties, and Quality Stars is bringing on additional staff.
“As a community, we definitely need to be supporting new programs,” said Sarah Gould-Houde, who works with the Quality Stars program in the North Country.
Basiliere agrees. Given the cost of opening a child care center, which requires space and staff, the focus should be on expanding the network of family and family group providers. With more universal pre-K options for children when they turn 4, the most acute needs are for infants and toddlers.
The Adirondack Birth to Three Alliance, founded in 2014 with support from the Adirondack Foundation, has worked to establish a network of resources for providers and parents across the North Country. The goal is to improve access to care and education.
That may prove even more difficult as resources are stretched thin and families struggle to adapt to the new normal.This year’s coronavirus pandemic has upended daily life in the Adirondacks. Schools in New York State closed on March 16, and child care providers found themselves in limbo. Would they stay open? If so, were they putting themselves and their families at risk? If anything, the crisis has underscored the essential role providers play inrural communities.
Skiff said most providers she had been in touch with were nervous about losing their income and surviving without it. At the same time they were worried about the implications of staying open.
She closed for two weeks at the end of March after one of her families was exposed to the virus. She later reopened, with new protocols, but is no longer at full capacity.
Some new guidelines have been difficult to follow. It has been impossible to keep children 6 feet apart and to make them wear masks in warm weather, for example. She also removed about 80 percent of the toys from her house to avoid having to disinfect them at the end of each day.
“Many of us are doing what we can to still be able to have our days follow our usual schedules but with increased disinfecting and hand washing,” Skiff wrote in a recent email. Janette Isham, the only family provider in Keene and Keene Valley, had temporarily closed primarily because parents had stopped sending their kids. Rose Blanchard, who operates two licensed child care programs in Saranac Lake—a child care center and a group family child care home—had also shut down.
For Little Peaks the public health crisis has indefinitely delayed the process for getting licensed as a child care center. It is now unclear if the school will be able to move to providing all-day coverage in the fall. In fact, at press time it was unclear if Little Peaks would open for in-person learning.
“This whole crisis has pointed out the need for child care even more than ever,” Brown said.
This original report for the Adirondack Explorer grew out of research that the author conducted for a community-needs white paper for the Adirondack Foundation: “Meeting the Needs of Adirondack Communities.” Find the white paper online.