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Kalispell Chamber tackles child-care dilemma at critical juncture

| October 17, 2021 12:00 AM

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is taking the lead in addressing a severe shortage of child-care providers in the Flathead Valley and we applaud the effort to see what solutions might be found.

The Chamber wrapped up a survey of local businesses this week and plans to follow that with focus-group discussions. Another survey aimed at families and more focus-group sessions are part of the process that’s expected to be completed by the end of the year. The goal is to develop some tangible solutions that can begin in 2022.

Consultant Kate McMahon, of Applied Communications, is helping the Chamber step through the process. She hit the nail on the head when she told the Inter Lake this week that time is critically of the essence.

“We’re moving straight to the strategy,” she said. “The needs are so desperate.”

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 wisely wants to avoid a top-down, cumbersome approach that overlooks the key players that are on the front lines of child care.

Sobering statistics released this week by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services illustrate how bad the child-care dilemma is statewide. And not surprising, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the shortage of providers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a total of 171 child-care programs have closed across Montana, with 21 of those now reopened. The latest data on child-care deserts shows a 73% supply gap across the state – meaning there is only capacity to serve 27% of children under the age of 6 in licensed or registered child care.

The lack of providers doesn’t only impact families seeking child care. It also directly affects our local businesses that are trying desperately to hire and retain employees and keep their doors open. Simply put, if parents can find child care, they can’t come to work.

The state announced this week it has $31 million available to child-care providers in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, and that will help some for the time-being. But the bigger conversation — and challenge — is how we elevate the importance of early childhood programs and child-care providers in our communities. For too long, many child-care workers have struggled with substandard wages and long hours. The burn-out factor is real. What we need from the top down, starting with the governor and Legislature, is a commitment to provide the resources child-care providers need. And as a community, we need to better value these providers. They’re not babysitters; they’re providing critical early childhood education.

Thanks, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, for recognizing how serious the child-care dilemma is for working families, and working to find resources and solutions.