Toddlers play at West Grand Early Childhood Center on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, in Kremmling. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

KREMMLING — Becca Pearson thought it would be impossible to find child care for her 1-year-old daughter in her rural community of 2,000. Instead, the speech pathologist found a provider that fits with her work schedule — where she gets a discount and could breastfeed her daughter during the day. 

She’s among a handful of teachers and staff at West Grand School District in Kremmling who receive not just a paycheck from the district — but child care. It’s a benefit some rural school districts have started to offer in an effort to hire and retain more teachers amid soaring housing costs and a lack of local day cares.

“We’ve talked about housing and child care almost every year that I’ve been here,” said Elizabeth Bauer, West Grand’s interim superintendent and a Kremmling resident since 2011. “It’s an issue — and it has been exacerbated more and more lately,” hampering the district’s ability to attract prospective teachers. 

Bauer knows of one licensed child care provider in town with spots for 10 kids — four of which are occupied by her own four sons. 

Concerns about lack of child care have intensified across the state as some districts are squeezed by a rash of educators leaving their jobs after a stressful year-and-a-half of pandemic teaching. That has intersected with a long-term shortage of teachers and an influx of wealthy second-home buyers who flocked to resort towns during the pandemic, driving up prices and making it nearly impossible, in the worst cases, for schools to fill new positions.

If housing and child care aren’t available, “we just lost an employee,” the superintendent of South Routt School District, Rim Watson, previously told The Colorado Sun. 

The parking lot of West Grand Elementary and Middle School is seen on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, in Kremmling. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

It can be particularly difficult to draw candidates to rural areas that can’t offer top pay. In Custer County, problems with child care access were thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic, when the only two licensed day care providers in Westcliffe became infected with the coronavirus — forcing four teachers to stay home with their children, district superintendent Mike McFalls said. Part of the school had to go remote due to the lack of staff, he said. 

As of mid-August, Colorado schools had at least 217 teaching jobs and 256 paraprofessional positions open, according to a survey by the Colorado School Finance Project that received responses from 104 school districts. More than a dozen districts each had more than 30 positions unfilled. 

The director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood has said there is a child care crisis, and the industry has long had a lopsided economic model where workers are paid low wages while parents face steep annual costs for their kids’ care. Millions in federal funding are expected to help stabilize child care providers and expand access for parents, and the state legislature has also set aside around $8.7 million to help employers construct onsite or nearby child care facilities for their employees.

Some advocates say schools are uniquely positioned to help the underfunded child care industry. Districts work with children, and have buildings, buses and established salary and benefit plans that are often more generous than what small child care providers offer. 

To Pearson, the speech pathologist, who lives a 35-minute drive from her workplace, the benefit is obvious. “Without this center, it would basically be impossible” to find child care, she said. 

Lack of local child care prompts West Grand to open its open center

At West Grand, the idea to open an early childhood center struck former superintendent Darrin Peppard in August 2018, when he got a worrying call from two parents — including one who was a teacher in the district. Their day care provider had decided to close up shop, leaving the parents without child care for their daughter — and leaving Kremmling with one last licensed child care provider. 

“What are we going to do?” Peppard wondered. 

The solution came in the form of a state grant meant to help retain teachers. Peppard asked if he could put it toward child care and the state agreed. The school received additional grants after teaming up with the area’s early childhood council and a nearby health center where employees also faced a dearth of accessible child care. 

There are about three dozen early childhood councils in Colorado that are charged with increasing access to quality, affordable child care. 

West Grand School District speech pathologist Becca Pearson and her daughter, Myla on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, at West Grand Early Childhood Center in Kremmling.(Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Bauer, Peppard’s temporary successor, said Kremmling is a small, rural child care desert where most families have two working parents, and some make lengthy commutes to Summit County or Eagle County for jobs. 

Having a center on the West Grand Elementary and Middle School campus saves district employees from having to drop off their child at a different location before work, she said. Teachers get a 25% discount, bringing the cost for an infant to $720 a month, with lower rates for toddlers and preschoolers. In Colorado, parents pay an average $1,127 per month by one estimate, or around $27,055 a year for a family with two children.

School officials believe their model could be adapted statewide, even though setting up the child care center has not been easy. The building — cream-colored, one-story and set against the Kremmling Cliffs — had to be expanded and renovated to meet state regulations. The work consumed Peppard for 18 months, he said. 

The center was open only for the children of school employees during its first year, which coincided with the pandemic. Nine were enrolled. This year, 15 are. And now, the center is struggling to increase its staff. 

“The fact is there’s not enough qualified (early childhood education) people to fill our centers,” said Rhonda Ilgner, the director of the West Grand facility. “What we normally do is bring in someone who at least has the interest, the love for children, understands that if you come work here we’re going to get you on an educational pathway.” 

A teacher for nine years who taught first and fourth grade, Ilgner had studied early childhood education and was interested in helping parents find child care. She leapt at the chance to work in the center when Peppard announced the grant funding, and hopes to attract more employees by advertising the early childhood center as a step toward a teaching job at the district.

Officials say it can be hard to find qualified employees passionate about child care, especially in smaller communities. Many day care workers make little more than minimum wage and hold exhausting jobs caring for young children. But strict licensing requirements — and thin operating margins — make it difficult to raise pay in hopes of attracting staff, child care providers say.

Beyond that, opening a child care center can be risky for school districts, as it can consume resources that are already stretched thin. Grant funding can plug key gaps, but isn’t a long-term fix.

West Grand School District nurse Chelsea Gaines, of Kremmling, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, August 24, 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“Ultimately it comes down to cost to the district to figure out how to manage and fit that into your budget,” said West Grand School District board chair Shawn Lechman. The state offers grants and without them “it’s a tough sell, especially to get started. For us, we’re pretty grant-dependent right now.”

“It’s on our mind, absolutely,” he said. 

Rural families scrape by to afford what few child care options exist

School employees across Colorado say they face high child care costs — if they can find a provider at all. 

In Telluride, kindergarten teacher Nick Lauritzen and his wife spend “more than they can afford” on day care for their infant son — an estimated two-thirds of his take-home pay. But the parents are grateful to have found an in-home caretaker for their child after their previous caretaker left the area when her partner changed jobs. 

A resort community of 2,000, Telluride has few child care providers who watch children under age 3, Lauritzen said. He could think of only two who take infants. Regardless, the couple was reluctant to send their baby, who has health conditions, to a more communal setting during the pandemic. 

They instead spent weeks scouring newspaper ads and, talking to friends, and friends of friends, and eventually found a woman caring for her own child who was willing to watch their son, too.

“She didn’t have anywhere to put her baby and she thought, ‘Well, if I can stay home with my baby and supplement that, then it’s kind of a win-win for both of us,’” he said. 

In Montrose, 36-year-old elementary school teacher Melissa Good said there are providers available — the trouble is finding one that is safe and affordable. 

“A single parent on a teacher’s salary trying to find day care for at least one child — it’s going to run you roughly $1,000 a month,” said Good, a mother of five.

She has sometimes struggled to find a day care open early enough to fit her schedule. One didn’t allow drop-offs until 7:45 a.m., right when her first bell at school rang, prompting her to pay a child care worker extra to take her son over each morning. 

Four of Good’s children are now in school and she has an infant who stays with an unlicensed provider. She was concerned after hearing horror stories of broken arms, babies left unattended and toddlers given Melatonin at child care centers nearby. 

Toddlers play at West Grand Early Childhood Center on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, in Kremmling. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
Toddlers play at West Grand Early Childhood Center on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, in Kremmling. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“I obviously wasn’t going to go to any of them,” Good said. 

And at West Grand, school nurse Chelsea Gaines expects she would pay twice as much for child care if she couldn’t get it through the district. Still, the mother of three — who slathered her 2-year-old son with sunscreen before dropping him off at the center Tuesday — is more concerned about access than cost. 

“I was willing to pay whatever Rhonda charged because it was my only option,” she said. 

School-based child care can help keep teachers in districts needing them most

Other districts have also bolstered child care access.

Eagle County’s school district offers preschool on several campuses and has an early childhood center with infant and toddler care. District employees get priority enrollment.  

Matt Jenkins, a spokesperson for Montrose County School District, said the district is working with other organizations on a child care needs assessment to see what they can do to help. Opening a child care center is a possibility.  

“Certainly for our younger teachers who have younger children, child care is an important resource and unfortunately, the supply doesn’t meet the demand,” he said. 

Clear Creek school district officials have heard complaints about lack of child care since “day one,” from students’ families and employees, who often commute to the Idaho Springs area from Front Range suburbs because there’s more affordable housing or child care there, said superintendent Karen Quanbeck.

A recent survey showed the area had an “incredible lack” of child care — not just affordable options but any at all, she said. 

“Certainly for our younger teachers who have younger children, child care is an important resource and unfortunately, the supply doesn’t meet the demand.”

Matt Jenkins, a spokesperson for Montrose County School District

District representatives have worked with county officials, the local recreation district and a community college to get grant funding to address the issue, and the group plans to open an infant and toddler care center in a county building that’s being vacated later this month. 

The district has extra property — an unused 1960s-era building — that it could renovate to house both an elementary school and an early care center down the line.

“We’ve been a teeny tiny bit hesitant to say, ‘hey, we’re going to take the lead on this’ because our plates are so full already, especially with pandemic learning 2.0,” Quanbeck said. “But our partners are so amazing.”

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...