By JAMES BELL
Finding child care in Ellis County has become harder than ever as the number of providers continues to decline — but the need grows.
And a new effort from the Hays Chamber is working to identify causes and solutions to the growing problem.
The seriousness of the issue was highlighted in the ChildCare Aware of Kansas' annual point-in-time report earlier this year.
"ChildCare Aware of Kansas is a chamber member," said Hays Chamber President and CEO Sarah Wasinger. "They work across the state to help connect resources to childcare providers. But also they try to connect families with child care providers who are looking for them."
According to the report, in 2020, only 63 percent of child care needs were being met.
"The other alarming fact is that we've lost 16 child care providers since that same point in time count," Wasinger said. "So, obviously, this problem isn't going anywhere, so there's the daunting question, well, where do we start.”
To address the problem, she said a group of locally interested parties have joined together to create the Childcare Taskforce for Ellis County.
"This is just the discussion that we're having on how do we start to address the needs for child care in our community because we know they're vast."
She said various interested parties are a part of the conversation, including ChildCare Aware of Kansas, early childhood education providers, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Heartland Community Foundation, the Hays Area Children's Center, the city of Hays and Grow Hays.
"And we have Barb Wasinger, our representative from the 111th district,” Wasinger said. "(She) has started to be a part of that conversation too, from the get-go. And she's taking notes during these meetings and trying to very much listen to the challenges that are shared from a daycare provider standpoint.”
She said having a legislator included in the conversation is essential as many believe at least a portion of the problem can be attributed to regulatory hurdles on child care providers by the state.
"You can't have things like shampoo or conditioner within 5-feet reach of children," Wasinger said. "And those are just some of the things that you scratch your head at. ... If you have your own kids in your home, you're not going to put the shampoo and conditioner out of reach.
"If you have a pet dog or a cat, you can't have the pet food on the ground for the pet to eat during the day. So these are just some things that make you scratch your head. And for our child care providers, I can't imagine what they must be going through when they share some of their concerns on the issues that they face. And, that probably adds to the fact of why people don't want to be in that industry in the first place."
Those regulations hamper the ability to for childcare centers to become profitable, removing what is typically a requirement for providers, according to Grow Hays Executive Director Doug Williams.
"Kansas is pretty archaic in our regulatory requirements, which makes it very difficult for a child care provider to operate a profitable business, particularly when you talk about infant care," Williams said. "Kansas is one of two states in the United States that has this three-to-one ratio, one provider only taking care of three infants, and other states have been far more progressive than Kansas in that regard.
"We just have to cut through some of this regulation and try and get some of those kinds of things taken care of so we can incent more people to become child care providers."
Further, the lack of available child care is likely contributing to the area's workforce shortage.
"In some cases, for an entry-level job, if it's not paying enough, it makes no sense for them to pay to have their kids taken to child care," Williams said. "In other cases, people can maybe afford it, but they just can't find it. There are insufficient providers in the community."
And as Ellis County struggles with enough providers, there are impacts to the entire region.
"When we talk about workforce and how we as a chamber can support workforce, we know that there are parents out there who are actually paying for child care before they even have a child in the womb," Wasinger said. "We also have families that are driving from Stockton to bring their kids to Hays for child care, and then they're going back and working a full day. And then they're coming back to Hays again, to pick up their children. So, this is such a huge issue for … our whole entire region."
The first step for the committee is underway; a survey that will fully identify the depth of the issue.
"As a committee, we've been working with Bradford Wiles from the Kansas State Research and Extension agency," Wasinger said. "They have done community-based surveys all across Kansas, and he's working with our committee to put together survey questions specific to Ellis County. … The biggest thing that people need to keep in mind with this survey, we know that everybody's time is precious, however, we're not going to address this issue if we don't get some concrete data for what our true needs are as a county. With that data, then that gives us the flexibility and puts us in a position as a county to start applying for grants and things of that nature that we could possibly use to start incentivizing child care.
"So, this is a huge, huge opportunity for us. And if we don't start finding ways to make the finances work for these folks, we're going to struggle."
The survey is expected to be ready this week and will be available through the Hays Chamber.
The survey will be anonymous.
"So, we will be doing this survey digitally, we will have essentially a QR code attached," Wasinger said. "And of course, we'll do a media release. ... But all the agencies that I shared will also be sharing that data in that survey across their communication channels. And then, ideally, we'll have that survey wrapped up by the end of December."
She said once the data has been compiled, the committee is ready to take action to secure funds that will be used to address the problem.
"The Dane G. Hansen Foundation has a significant amount of funding right now available to give to communities for child care purposes, as well as USDA," Wasinger said. "And then I believe there are still some ARPA funds that are set aside for child care for communities. So bringing that back to our workforce, if we can start getting child care addressed, you know, maybe that flexes some people who aren't currently in our workforce, it puts them in a position to where they can come back and work again."