As families struggle to find child care, Winona County to hold meeting on solutions

A shortage of child care for families is reaching a tipping point in Minnesota.  In the southeastern part of the state, there’s not enough space at licensed child care groups for an estimated 8,800 kids under the age of six with both parents working, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Winona County is seeing a similar shortage compared to the rest of the state. There is a critical need to address the issue for families and employers. Area groups will be holding a public meeting next week to find ways to address the problem.

As a preschool teacher for 13 years, Cassie Stratton said the conversation used to center around ‘quality.’  But based on a recent survey, they found what community members needed was a little more simple.

“The biggest issue is there’s not enough child care,” said Straton, a lead preschool teacher for WSU Children’s Center.

In Winona County, the shortage of available spaces for child care is at 515 slots. That’s a whopping 51 percent increase from the last year, according to Winona Area Public Schools.

“And a lot of the slots that are needed in the county are infants and toddlers,” said Ann Riebel, director of community education for Winona Area Public Schools.

From a worker standpoint, the job can be demanding with minimal pay. That forces some to make a difficult choice.

“[It’s] between what you’re passionate about and what you want to continue to do and the population you want to continue to serve and what you’re bank is telling you,” Stratton said.

Having more staff might open up child care slots and increase the quality of care, but bring the cost out of reach for some.

“What you can pay for your staff and what you can actually charge families that they can afford, doesn’t give you a lot fo working space in the profit area,” Riebel said.

The shortage is having a real impact on families. In 2018, 33 percent of surveyed employees in the area missed work because they couldn’t find someone to care for their child.

“Some people aren’t returning from maternity leaves because they don’t have child care,” Reibel said.

In turn, that contributes to the need for qualified staff for employers.

“Let’s face it, we’re in a workforce shortage. So we need everybody to work,” said Brein Maki, a board member for the Lewiston-Altura School District.

Maki points to Harmony Enterprises opening the Harmony Kids Learning Center, as an example of businesses stepping up to help. Employees for Harmony Enterprises receive a discount on childcare tuition, but its services are open to the public, as well.

“The company decided, as part of the recruiting effort, they would do a child care center. And those employees are now right next to their kids all day,” Maki said.

While some solutions might work in other communities, she said they need everyone in the area to pitch in.

“What can I bring to the table? What can everybody else bring to the table to have these conversations and make sure we’re all thriving in Winona County,” Maki said.

The community is invited to share their thoughts about the need for accessible and high-quality child care. There will be a town hall meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at the Tandeski Center in Winona. Dinner will be served at 5 p.m. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. You are asked to RSVP by calling Winona Area Public Schools at (507) 494-0900.

It is sponsored by the Winona Area Birth to Grade 3 Committee, First Children’s Finance and Winona Rural Child Care Innovation Program Team.