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Kalispell Chamber leads effort to find child-care solutions

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | October 14, 2021 12:00 AM

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is conducting a study of local businesses to gather input about child-care options in Flathead County in an effort to address and find solutions to a shortage of providers.

There is a 73% “supply gap” in child-care resources statewide, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, That means only 27% of Montana children under the age of 6 have access to a licensed or registered child-care center.

A total of 171 child-care centers have closed across Montana since the onset of the pandemic, according to the state. Twenty-one of those have reopened, and a total of 916 licensed or registered providers currently operate in Montana.

“Parents everywhere are struggling to find affordable, quality child care,” the Kalispell Chamber said in a prepared statement. But the Chamber wants to know exactly what those struggles are in the Flathead Valley, and how they can be addressed.

“Every community in Montana is different,” said Kate McMahon, a consultant working with the Kalispell Chamber.

The Chamber’s goal is to understand the particular child-care landscape in the local community in order to quickly roll out a tailored solution.

The Chamber started with a business survey that’s open until Friday, which will be followed by focus-group sessions to review the information gathered in the survey. In November, the Chamber will send out another survey aimed at families, followed by another set of focus groups on that topic.

McMahon said the entire process will be wrapped up by December, so the Chamber can start right away with implementing solutions at the start of the new year.

“We’re moving straight to the strategy,” McMahon said.

“The needs are so desperate,” she explained, there isn’t time to waste in the initial phases.

THE SURVEY looks at the ways businesses and families are affected by the lack of child-care options, by asking employers whether their workers have missed work or turned down promotions because they couldn’t find someone to watch their children during the workday.

The surveys also ask stakeholders to weigh in on what solutions they would find most effective, whether those are funding for child-care providers, adding additional space at existing child-care centers or creating measures to make child-care careers more appealing.

The idea is to get a sense of the most pressing issues surrounding child care in the valley, and the preferred options for tackling those challenges. McMahon stressed the Kalispell Chamber wants to avoid a top-down, cumbersome approach that overlooks the key players that are in the child-care trenches.

She pointed out there could be people in the community who are already involved in addressing child-care problems, and the Chamber’s role could be to bring them together and help facilitate getting them additional resources.

“We don’t want to reinvent wheels,” McMahon said.

The employer childcare survey is open until Friday at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/flatheadchildcare

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.