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Nine Becker County daycares closing: Regulations, lack of help force providers' hands

Small Blessings is one of nine area daycares to recently announce it will be closing. Kaysey Price / Tribune

Four Becker County daycare providers have closed their doors in the last six months and another five are set to call it quits once summer hits, displacing nearly 100 children and leaving their parents scrambling for child care in the midst of an already-troublesome childcare shortage.

Parents of children currently attending Small Blessings, a preschool at United Methodist Church in Detroit Lakes, were surprised and put in a tough spot when the daycare's board of directors announced they would have to close their facility in March due to a lack of part-time employees and subs.

Karl Koenig, who has a two-year-old daughter at Small Blessings, says he feels churches are in a good position to provide daycare to their members, if they could just staff such a facility.

"It's just hard to find qualified workers no matter what industry you're in, and this is one that's particularly important," he said. "People aren't going to move to our town if there's no one to watch their kids while they work."

If you build it, will they come?

Small Blessings has been providing child care for roughly 15 years in the Detroit Lakes community. One of the daycare's board directors, Deb Wimmer, says the church members saw a great need for childcare all those years ago, and they felt it was a mission the church could fulfill because they had some extra space.

But even back then they struggled to get started.

"We kept hitting roadblock after roadblock when we first started," recalled Wimmer. "We couldn't do a center-based (a type of daycare that is qualified to take in more children than a family or in-home daycare can) because we didn't have a commercial kitchen, and we also didn't have a sprinkler system throughout the church."

Despite some rigid regulations, they got up and running and were able provide for 14 long as those 14 children matched all the stipulations.

"In order to have our full 14 kids, we had to have at least one school-age child," said Wimmer. "Nowadays, with the public schools doing preschool and full-time kindergarten...we never could have 14 kids these last couple of years because we didn't have school-age kids."

This and other ever-tightening regulations proved to be quite the frustration for a facility that was already struggling to stay staffed.

"The thing that kind of put us over the edge right now is trying to find help," said Wimmer.

Not only were they struggling to fill two full-time daycare provider positions (the two they currently staff needed hours of additional training despite already having degrees in the childcare field), but finding substitutes proved to be nearly impossible, again because of strict regulations.

"In order to sub at a daycare, you have to have a background check, but it has to be specific to that daycare," said Wimmer, adding that it's another one of those rules that just doesn't seem to make sense.

In addition to paying for multiple background checks, subs also have to take online courses and hours of training all the while not knowing if they'll even get called in to sub.

"There's a lot of people saying it's not worth it," said Wimmer, adding that the lack of qualified subs puts the daycare—and, inevitably, parents—in a tough spot. "If we can't find a sub for a day, we have to close."

Wimmer says their directors met and tried to find a way to stay open, but they just couldn't figure out how to follow regulations and stay staffed in such a climate. Not only are the regulations strict, providing daycare isn't exactly a well-incentivised profession: the hours are long and the pay is low.

"You're seeing people leaving it (daycare providing) left and right because it's just too much. It's just too much," said Wimmer.

Where do we go from here?

Koenig says he and his wife haven't found a replacement daycare option yet. He says they will have to ask family members to babysit until they can finally get off childcare waiting lists, a feat that parents know can be a long, cumbersome task.

In the meantime Mary Rotter, who heads up Laker Prep in Detroit Lakes, says they will be doing what they can to help parents of displaced infants and toddlers find temporary placements, whether it be at Laker Prep or another area daycare.

"We're not able to get everybody in, but were doing the best we can without hindering the care of the children we already have," said Rotter.

Laker Prep also has quite a long wait list of parents looking for full-time care, but Rotter says the temporary placements won't affect the full-time spots.

"I feel that we're trying to work together," she said. "There's a lot of kids here, and the number of spots to care for them does not always match."

As for a long-term solution, Wimmer says she doesn't see one happening unless it comes from the top down.

"I think legislatively is how it's going to have to be taken care of," she said.