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ST. CLOUD – Finding a new child-care provider has become a frustrating routine for middle school teacher Megan Dolan, whose 2-year-old son is on his third day care in less than a year.

After their provider closed in May, Dolan and her husband found another in-home day care about a mile away from their house outside of Becker, Minn. Then that provider told the Dolans in December she was soon closing.

Finding William's next child care was an exhaustive feat that required three weeks, a spreadsheet and calls to every licensed provider in both Becker and Clear Lake. It was made even more complicated by the couple's plans for baby No. 2.

"I had to ask all of them when their next infant opening is — and there were some that were two years out," said Dolan, 29. "We actually decided to wait to try for another because we couldn't afford $450 a week. … It felt like a majority of our paycheck would be going straight to day care."

Dolan's experience is increasingly common, especially in rural parts of the state, which threatens any post-pandemic economic recovery and the long-term stability of the communities that are in greatest need of child care.

Last year Minnesota lost more than 4,000 licensed family child-care spaces — most of them in greater Minnesota — as the pandemic made an already difficult situation worse.

The number of in-home day cares in the state has been shrinking for decades, and there is little reason to expect a resurgence. Child-care centers, which are often more expensive, have proliferated largely in urban areas to take their place. But establishing and maintaining a profitable child-care center — or even a break-even one — in a sparsely populated area is difficult without help from governments, nonprofits or businesses, according to a recent report from the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development.

"In rural areas the economics don't work as well for centers without extra effort and some kind of intervention," said Marnie Werner, vice president for research at the center. "But family providers keep leaving, so we are left with child-care deserts."

Finally Dolan was able to find an in-home provider about 10 miles away that had recently opened. William was there a week when the center had to shut down for two weeks after a family member of the provider got COVID-19.

"We had to try to piece it together the best that we could and try to find any relatives we could to watch him."

Providers struggling

The pandemic has caused the state's child-care crisis to cut two ways: With a tanked economy, school-age children at home and virus fears, many parents have stopped looking for care altogether.

That has left providers like Abdi Daisane operating well below capacity even as many parents scramble to find care.

In recent months, Daisane's Blooming Kids Child Care Center in St. Cloud has averaged about 30 kids. On Friday, there were 12.

"Some centers ... closed down for good because they just couldn't continue to operate with only six kids, seven kids, 10 kids. You cannot sustain with only that many kids," he said.

Paradoxically, central Minnesota has the greatest need for more child-care slots among greater Minnesota regions. The Center for Rural Policy and Development said as of Dec. 31, more than 15,000 spaces are needed to meet demand, while the rest of the state outside the Twin Cities metro needs about 23,000 more. The Twin Cities needs 51,000 more licensed day-care slots to catch up to demand, though capacity there has not dropped nearly as drastically as the rest of Minnesota.

"Child care and housing are the biggest obstacles to filling jobs in greater Minnesota," Werner said.

Since opening in 2018, Daisane has saved a little money to help cushion the business due to the high overhead costs of child care: rent for a large space, utility bills to keep the space comfortable for children, staffing to keep the required student-to-staff ratios and food for the children.

"All of those things add up really quick," Daisane said.

Still, he's hopeful for the future of his business.

"If [the pandemic] stops and kids start going back to day care and parents start going back to work, then we will pull it off," he said. "If day cares survived in 2020, they will survive in 2021 — if things get better."

Looking for solutions

Legislators and advocates are increasingly pitching child-care investments as an economic necessity to win support for increased aid.

The federal COVID-19 bailout package recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives contains $50 billion in child-care aid that Sen. Tina Smith said would especially benefit mothers of young children who have been kept out of the workforce during the pandemic.

"Child care is part of the basic economic infrastructure we need, just like transportation and housing," the Minnesota Democrat said at a recent news conference.

State Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, has pitched $24 million in grants to help start or grow child-care programs.

"No matter how many jobs we create, the inability for families to access child care will continue to be in the way of parents entering the workforce," she said in a statement.

But providers and others say the system needs an overhaul, not just patches to get through the pandemic.

"Is it a business? Is it a school? Right now child care operates like a highly regulated private business or a very underfunded public school," Werner said. Her group recommends policymakers address unintended consequences in regulations; boost subsidies for low-income families; and allow for creativity and "experimentation" in child-care models and private-public partnerships.

"We have an opportunity to have a real impact on our child-care crisis if we can just reach out and grab it," Werner said.

Lynn Haglin has been working on child care in northeastern Minnesota for years, and often brings up the cost her son and daughter-in-law pay for two children to attend a child-care center in the Twin Cities: $31,000 a year.

"People talk in generalities but don't always understand — expensive really means expensive," said Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation. "That shouldn't be put upon providers as a negative, because they have to live, too."

Haglin is hopeful the pandemic has sparked lasting interest in addressing the state's deep child-care needs. "It's about realizing this is an economic issue and not just a child-care issue — it's affecting everybody and everything in our communities."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496