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Half of Colorado lives in a day care desert. Here’s how that’s straining one mountain community.

Though officials say help is on the way, parents and child care providers are struggling in Colorado, a state where half the population lives in a day care desert.

Tegan Ebbert is shown Aug. 7, 2021, with her six-month-old son August, at her home office near Hayden. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Tegan Ebbert is shown Aug. 7, 2021, with her six-month-old son August, at her home office near Hayden. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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After watching her boss struggle to find child care in remote northwestern Colorado, Tegan Ebbert diligently planned how to keep working after the birth of her son in January. Baby August was quickly placed on the waiting list for a local day care and Ebbert’s mother drove in from Wisconsin to help out for a few months. 

But Ebbert’s plan quickly fell apart. 

The day care August was waitlisted for delayed its opening. Another local facility was full. The third closest day care, a nearly hour’s drive away, is shutting down this month. 

Ebbert posted on Facebook: Open to all options (in home, full time, part time, nanny share, etc.). 

No one responded.

She called her pediatrician, friends of friends and casual acquaintances asking for help finding a sitter. 

“I am desperately trying to find child care for my son,” she wrote, in one June 7 text message. 

“I’m sorry,” a would-be caretaker responded. “I am (full with) a long waitlist. Only possible availability is for 2 year olds in September.” 

Ebbert’s experience is a common one in Routt County, a rural area of 25,000 people that’s home to a resort ski town but not nearly enough child care providers. 

More than half of Colorado’s population lives in a day care desert, and the shortage of licensed care has intensified as the pandemic decimated underfunded providers and forced many parents to leave the workforce to watch their kids. The state’s Office of Early Childhood says millions of dollars are pouring in to stabilize and potentially transform the beleaguered child care industry. But for now day care operators are struggling to hire staff and many parents feel they have no options. Without child care for working parents, critical jobs can go unfilled, hindering economic growth after a year and a half of coronavirus restrictions, local officials say. 

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The situation is particularly dire in Routt County. The only day care in south Routt, Little Lambs Daycare in Phippsburg, recently said it would close in mid-August due to lack of staff, leaving an additional 40 families without child care. The abrupt announcement has spurred waves of emergency talks as some desperate parents consider quitting their jobs or moving out of the area. 

Exploding housing costs — driven by an influx of wealthy second-home buyers during the pandemic — are compounding the struggle, making it even harder for families to make resort-town rent on a single income, with one parent devoted to child-rearing.

Ebbert says she doesn’t want to give up her job as a land use planner for Routt County. But, frustrated by her search, she felt she no longer had the “luxury” of trying to be selective about who watched her child. 

“I have left the realm of seeking affordable, quality care and entered the realm of being desperate,” she wrote to Routt County commissioners in June. “The last thing I want to do is leave a job that I find fulfilling and, quite frankly, we are not in the position to have only one income.”

Child care is expensive. At around $27,055 a year, the cost to send two children to day care in Colorado is akin to almost three years at the University of Colorado Denver. 

But despite the steep price tag, most child care centers operate on thin margins.

13-month-old Emerson Morter plays Aug. 6, 2021, at Little Lambs Daycare in the town of Phippsburg about 25 miles south of Steamboat Springs.(Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
13-month-old Emerson Morter plays Aug. 6, 2021, at Little Lambs Daycare in the town of Phippsburg about 25 miles south of Steamboat Springs.(Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Providers say they’re pinched: They face rigorous regulatory requirements and struggle to hire workers. Raising teacher pay to attract qualified applicants would mean hiking rates, potentially pushing child care out of reach for parents. 

Centers that do find a qualified applicant say it can take months to hire them because a state background check system has been backlogged. 

The industry is plagued by high turnover and lack of staff, who generally receive lower wages and fewer benefits than if they worked in a school district. In some Colorado resort towns, child care workers, who earn on average $30,000 a year and are disproportionately women of color, commute long distances from places they can afford to live. 

“These folks are making between $14 and $23 an hour. You can make that much at Starbucks or waiting tables,” said Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, whose kindergartner is waitlisted for an after-school child care program. For food service jobs, “you don’t have to have a bachelor’s degree — which for a lot of these positions you do — and you don’t have to work all day with children, which is hard — it’s exhausting.”

She called the situation a “really significant crisis.” 

She and other Routt County officials are working on short-term solutions, using stimulus funding and private donations to potentially offer housing stipends, retention bonuses or gas reimbursements to day care workers. Officials have discussed ways to raise wages and estimate it would cost $250,000 to increase each child care provider’s pay $1 an hour for one year. 

“We are committed to a short-term solution with the funding we have available now, and we are also committed to identifying a longer-term solution for funding,” Melton said. 

The county discussions come as Colorado prepares to provide by 2023 every 4 year old at least 10 hours a week of pre-kindergarten, and as close to $600 million in federal funding is pouring in to help stabilize child care providers and expand access for parents, said Mary Alice Cohen, director of the state Office of Early Childhood. 

The funding will be distributed starting this fall. Nearly $100 million in federal and state funding has already begun going out, and, among other goals, is meant to help providers recruit and retain workers, and to rebound from a big drop in attendance during the pandemic.

“There is help on the way for providers across our state, including in Routt County,” Cohen said, adding, “we have the opportunity to transform our early childhood landscape.” 

The background check backlog should be cleared in the next two weeks, after the state received a flood of applicants in recent months that overwhelmed the office’s ability to process them, she said. They have since sent in a “surge team” to sort through the backlog.

“Will we have to…  gather up our family and relocate?”

It’s unclear if these solutions will arrive in time to help families in Routt County who need a child care provider now. 

Pearson Alspach, a mother of two with a baby on the way, said it no longer feels possible for two working parents to raise three children in Steamboat Springs, the largest city in Routt County. It worked for a while. An in-home day care provider watched her kids when they were infants. For a year, she shuttled one to preschool for half a day, then back to the home day care, in hopes of getting her “foot in the door” to enroll in a full-day preschool. Her child got in after a year. 

Alspach was hoping the in-home day care could look after her infant due this fall, and that her oldest, who is 6, could enroll in an after-school program. 

But the day care provider said she isn’t available until May, and may stop offering care altogether. Her son didn’t get one of the coveted after-school slots at a local elementary school. 

The spots filled up “within 30 seconds” of opening at 8 a.m. on registration day, said Alspach, who works in admissions at a local boarding school. “I just didn’t expect nothing (to be) available.”

She sobbed in her kitchen as her new reality set in. 

“I’m sort of at this crossroads,” she said. “Is it impossible and will we have to sort of gather up our family and relocate?”

Alspach and her husband are considering moving to Wyoming, where they have family. Their day care tab was $35,000 last year. 

Kim Elshere picks up her 5-month-old daughter Hannah on Aug. 6, 2021, from Little Lambs Daycare in the town of Phippsburg about 25 miles south of Steamboat Springs. Elshere works as a night shift nurse at Memorial Regional Health hospital in Craig and relies on the child care so she can sleep between shifts. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Kim Elshere picks up her 5-month-old daughter Hannah on Aug. 6, 2021, from Little Lambs Daycare in the town of Phippsburg about 25 miles south of Steamboat Springs. Elshere works as a night shift nurse at Memorial Regional Health hospital in Craig and relies on the child care so she can sleep between shifts. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rim Watson, superintendent of South Routt School District, says the district has weighed how it  can help stanch the child care crisis. Out of 60 district employees, three are directly affected by Little Lambs shutdown and another two face separate day care challenges.

Housing and child care availability are the top concerns of prospective hires, he said. 

If neither is available, “we just lost an employee,” Watson said. “It’s a big deal with no easy answer.” 

Ciara Bartholomew, finance manager at the district, said her next door neighbor had used Little Lambs and is now trying to cobble together a replacement day care plan — Mondays and Tuesdays with a nanny share and Wednesdays and Thursdays at a preschool. She does not yet have a definite plan for Fridays. 

“This is not an uncommon story where people are piece-mealing support any possible way that they can,” Bartholomew said. 

She’s seeking child care options, too. She used an at-home day care provider a colleague referred her to, but the provider recently said she is moving away. Bartholomew or her husband — a paramedic in Eagle County — could drop their child off in a city up to an hour’s drive away but those facilities are full, too.

As of now, she said, “we don’t really know what we’re going to do. There are just no options available.” 

Providers face staffing problems, lack of funding

The staffing crisis at Little Lambs in Phippsburg began when a preschool teacher moved to Ecuador, and then just snowballed, owner Kasey O’Halloran said. The center’s director moved into that position, which requires a specific credential, but is now leaving. Her departure prompted another staff member to quit, citing stress, O’Halloran said.

O’Halloran is personally grieving the loss of a business she built over the past two years, but is also worried for parents and children, who she said would likely end up with unlicensed day care providers. 

“Maybe it’s Mary-down-the-street and Sally-a-neighborhood-away-from-you,” she said. “These are all going to be unlicensed facilities that don’t have the best educational intention for this child, and parents have to do this because they have no choice, they can’t go to work if they don’t.” 

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Families, friends and unlicensed centers are part of the child care patchwork. The lack of regulation has sometimes led to disastrous results, including child and infant deaths.

Angela Pleshe, who leads one of the state’s 30 or so early childhood councils in Routt County, said Little Lambs offered a lifeline to families in the southern half of the county, who might not be able to drive half an hour to more than an hour away to another licensed day care before and after work. Summer camps and after-school programs offered by the city of Steamboat Springs have also been affected by lack of staff, to the point that spots fill up within seconds of them opening. 

“I actually had a parent email me and say, ‘I just didn’t hit the button fast enough, and I don’t have care for my kindergartener now after school,’” she said. “So it’s frightening that the parents just don’t have options.” 

There are few qualified child care workers to draw on in a remote resort community like south Routt County, exacerbating staffing challenges, she said. 

Other local providers say they face severe staffing problems and lack of funding. 

Kim Elshere walks home after picking up her 5-month-old daughter Hannah on Aug. 6, 2021, from Little Lambs Daycare in the town of Phippsburg about 25 miles south of Steamboat Springs. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Kim Elshere walks home after picking up her 5-month-old daughter Hannah on Aug. 6, 2021, from Little Lambs Daycare in the town of Phippsburg about 25 miles south of Steamboat Springs. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Unlike in K-12 schools, it can be hard to find substitutes to cover caretakers out for doctors appointments or vacation. Having to close down for even a day sends ripple effects to working families who lose child care, piling stress and guilt on day care operators, some said. 

Kim Martin, the executive director of Young Tracks preschool and infant care center in Steamboat Springs, said when the facility closed for a week because a boiler went out in 2019, it felt like it would be the “biggest catastrophe ever.” But then the center shut down for three and a half months during the pandemic, displacing more than 70 families who’d been receiving child care, she estimates. 

Young Tracks is back open, and is maxed out with 78 families enrolled. Martin gets five to eight calls or emails a day from parents seeking a spot, and doesn’t keep a waiting list because it became too hard to manage. On Fridays, she closes one room dedicated to caring for infants due to lack of staff. 

Colorado regulations require there be one staff member for every five infants or toddlers, and one for every seven to ten children depending on if they are two, three or four years old. 

Staffing has been a problem since she began working as an early childhood education teacher in 1988 and has been exacerbated by lack of affordable housing in a resort community. Eleven of her roughly 20 employees drive in from Craig, Hayden and Oak Creek because of housing challenges. Martin herself lived more than 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs for several years when her family couldn’t find affordable housing closer to the city. 

Fixing a “classic market failure”

Child care advocates say there has to be some kind of government funding to sustain the industry in the long-run, similar to the per-pupil dollars K-12 schools receive. Aspen and other municipalities use local taxes to help fund child care, and advocates in Larimer County hope to put a similar sales tax increase to voters soon. 

The goal is to fix what Christina Taylor, chief executive officer of Larimer County’s Early Childhood Council, calls a “classic market failure.” 

“There’s just no way that a provider can fix the issue on their own without passing costs on to those who can’t afford it,” Taylor said. One of her own employees was placed on a waiting list for a day care while pregnant, gave birth, and still hasn’t gotten in, she said. 

Long-term solutions being considered in Routt Count include boosting funding through taxes or private dollars, and helping to reduce child care centers’ operating costs. That could be done by finding a way to pay off their mortgages or consolidating services. Officials have also discussed increasing the pipeline of possible child care employees by helping high school students access discounted or free classes while receiving hands-on training related to child care. 

Cohen, with the state’s early childhood office, said the stimulus funding has helped providers “hanging on by a thread” as enrollment plummeted during the pandemic. It also is intended to help improve child care in rural areas and to explore solutions to problems like the lack of substitute teachers. Some is meant to reduce costs for families, and Cohen is planning to better advertise a state program that subsidizes child care costs for low-income parents. 

Tegan and Silas Ebbert are shown outside their Routt County home Aug. 7, 2021, with their 6-month-old son August.(Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Tegan and Silas Ebbert are shown outside their Routt County home Aug. 7, 2021, with their 6-month-old son August.(Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the meantime, Ebbert — the new mother who searched for child care with no luck — is now working from home two days a week and caring for her infant at the same time. 

She was able to find an at-home caretaker to watch August for part of the day three days a week and she’s grateful she gets to spend more time with her child, even though it is just “looking over the top of his head at the computer screen.” Her caretaker recently said she would be out of town for two weeks, a period in which Ebbert will be without child care. Her own mother has returned to Wisconsin after staying for two months in a 1971 Great Divide camper — nicknamed the Nana Pod — because they couldn’t find her an apartment to rent.

“We got so lucky with this fantastic baby and motherhood has been so great and the single most difficult part of it has been not being able to find child care,” she said. “It makes me question whether or not we will expand our family.”

The Colorado Sun is reporting on access to affordable and high-quality child care, including for teachers, emergency responders and health care employees who work unusual hours. Please contact shannon@coloradosun.com if you would be willing to share your experience or insight on this topic, or fill out the Sun’s survey here


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