Background: The Importance of Child Care

High-quality child care* is the backbone of Alaska’s economy.

A robust child care system supports the development of young children (birth to age 12), providing a foundation for success in school and life.  It allows families to go to work or school, confident their children are in a licensed, safe, healthy, and playful environment. It benefits business with a reliable, productive workforce less distracted by child care struggles.

Alaska’s early childhood education system was fragile before COVID-19, and is now at-risk of collapse. Access to high-quality child care is difficult for Alaska’s families, especially for infant and toddler care. The cost of care (an average cost of $1,000/month) exceeds what families can afford to pay.  Child care businesses have high operating costs, tight revenues, and slim margins, even though early educators are paid near-poverty wages (an average of $12/hour). Low child-to-staff ratios means the work is labor intensive which drives the cost of quality care up.

Despite its fragility, the system’s economic and social impact is significant. In 2020, research showed Alaska’s early childhood education system generated over a half a billion dollars of economic activity annually. The sector accounted for more than 500 licensed/regulated businesses, 7,000 jobs in the system, and allowed 52,000 Alaskans (1 in every 6 resident workers) to participate in the workforce.  

COVID-19 has brought the complex issues of child care to the forefront and exposed the system cracks. In the pandemic’s early stages, Alaska’s residents were asked to stay home except for those the State deemed essential workers. Child care programs stayed open to support those essential workers and have remained open throughout to support families returning to the workplace or needing child care. Today, approximately 90% (up from 60% in 2020) of Alaska’s child care businesses are open, but are struggling.  Fluctuating enrollments, costly adaptations to local health and safety mandates over time, and workforce issues has kept these small businesses on the brink of collapse for more than two years.  Early educators are navigating the health risks associated with COVID-19 against how to work and best care for children.

The need to work together to support Alaska’s children, families, and child care system is more vital than ever. If parents are not able to work because of child care issues, there are financial impacts to both families and the economy. 

Recognizing the cyclical nature of the pandemic, Alaska’s response and recovery must prioritize child care as an essential service by leveraging current federal and State funding, and then focus on pandemic-related policy changes. Once the system is stabilized, Alaska must use this opportunity to build the system back better.

thread Mission

For over 35 years, thread, Alaska’s Child Care Resource & Referral Network, has been committed to ensuring affordable, high-quality child care is accessible to all Alaskans.

Our work improves child care by:

  • empowering parents as consumers and advocates; 
  • training early educators and supporting their professional development through Alaska SEED; 
  • assisting child care programs in delivering high quality care through Learn & Grow, Alaska’s Quality Improvement and Recognition System (QRIS); and 
  • collaborating with communities, policymakers and businesses on solutions and as advocates at the local, state and federal level. 

These areas continue to be thread‘s focus.

thread Recommendations for Child Care

1. Prioritize and invest in licensed child care as an essential service.
IMPACT: 500+ Licensed/Regulated child care programs are retained.

Issue – The financial burden on child care programs has grown during the pandemic. Alaska must fully stabilize the child care system as a first step towards full recovery. The State of Alaska’s 2021-22 response plan is making financial assistance available to child care programs and educators via federal stimulus funding.  While this investment is slowly helping to stabilize the system, it is a short-term solution.  Majority of child care programs remain on the verge of closure. Alaska must prioritize and invest in child care as an essential service to stabilize system and then build it back better.

Solutions – To stabilize the system and ensure pre-COVID-19 child care capacity is there for families, Alaska needs to:

  • Ensure adequate funding for child care programs. thread estimates a $10M/month need in Alaska.
    • While federal funding is available, continue the current (2022-2023) State of Alaska Child Care Program Office stabilization grant program for child care programs to access funding based on need, and flexibility to use the funding for operations, workforce, family support, etc.
    • Ensure child care programs are eligible for small business and nonprofit grants, and other community resources available.
  • Ensure access to high-quality child care remains stable.
    • Continue to maintain current child care licensing regulations to ensure programs continue to operate safety and effectively, and with quality standards.
    • Leverage federal waiver opportunities recognizing that child care programs have altered their business models, and help make it easier for programs to operate and receive funds.
    • Prioritize access for child care to obtain PPE and supplies (as essential workers) to continue to do their work safely.
  • Ensure economic recovery planning and policy includes child care.
    • Ensure alignment between child care and K-12 education planning for greater learning outcomes and community solutions.
    • Ensure child care support and collaboration is part of any COVID-19 policy, regulation, and law. This includes State and local economic recovery planning.
    • Dedicate State and local government funding for child care.

thread Supportthread is partnering with the State of Alaska Child Care Program Office to serve as the intermediary for disbursing federal stimulus funding. In Phase 1 of stabilization grants for child care, 396 eligible programs received $4.5M in assistance.

2. Support working families with access to affordable, highquality child care.
IMPACT: Families are less stressed with the option to fully return to work or school.

Issue – The access and affordability of child care has been a growing issue for years. Families need access to high-quality child care, but cannot afford to pay more. The pandemic has added a new level of stress and uncertainty to Alaska’s families. Some parents have faced job loss while others juggled parental responsibilities with remote work demands. Many working mothers have left the workforce to stay home. There is concern tuition costs will increase even more as the operational costs for child care programs has increased with the need for smaller class sizes, additional staff and PPE supplies. Alaska must support working families that need access to affordable, high-quality child care.

Solutions – To help families afford high-quality child care, Alaska must:

  • Invest in child care programs with flexibility and equity front and center.
    • Cover and/or offset family costs through 2022.
    • Ensure adequate subsidies are in place to best support families.
    • Ensure families have equitable access to high-quality child care, in a variety of settings, that meets their needs.
    • Keep equity front and center by ensuring families with the greatest need are served first, particularly if funds are limited.
  • Use cost-based methods to establish child care reimbursement rates that are more accurate and equitable than market price surveys.
    • Support more families in need of child care assistance by raising the (minimum) income eligibility requirement.
    • If using the market price survey, increase financial support for families in need to ensure that they can afford at least 75% of the child care available.
  • Maintain COVID-19 policies to mitigate risks for children and families, and ensure families have easy access to information.
    • Use science to inform decision-making for children in child care.
    • Provide easy access to information that is clear regarding health and safety protocols for children and child care.
  • Ensure families are able to find safe, affordable, high-quality child care in a variety of settings.
  • Ensure families’ needs and preferences drive policy and funding decisions.

thread Supportthread encourages families to choose licensed/regulated care and avoid placing children in unlicensed care. For families in need of care, thread continues to be a resource for both free child care referrals as well as early childhood information. thread also encourages families to talk with their employer about flexible work schedules and leave.

3. Recognize and invest in early childhood educators as professional, essential workers.
IMPACT: 7,000 early educators are retained.

Issue – Early educators have always provided essential services to families by caring for our greatest asset—young children. For this valuable work, they earn some of the lowest wages in the state (Avg. $12/hour or 15% below the national average wage) with little to no benefits. This uninsured workforce has shown up throughout the pandemic without appropriate pay, health care benefits, paid sick leave, personal protective equipment, or recognition that should come with their work. Some early educators have left the sector permanently. In a recent thread survey, 25% of child care programs reported needing more qualified staff. Eighty-two percent of early educators reported needing more training and education around current issues. The early childhood education workforce is a fragile, underfunded, and undervalued workforce. Most are living below poverty level unable to support their own families. Solving this problem isn’t as simple as having parents pay more for child care because most parents can’t afford to pay more. Alaska must make an investment to foster a more skilled, competent, confident and consistent early childhood education workforce.

Solutions – To ensure we recover, recruit, and retain a qualified early childhood education workforce, Alaska needs to:

  • Dedicate funding to child care programs for staffing. This includes funding to support:
    • Increased staffing needs due to smaller group sizes and accommodating for illness related absences.
    • Compensation for additional work duties including health checks, cleaning, and sanitizing.
    • Offer paid time for all work including training and professional development.
  • Pay early educators a livable wage and access to benefits.
    • Improve wage compensation.
    • Offer incentives for retention and professional development.
    • Offer access to health and other benefits such as paid sick leave.
  • Ensure labor supports and benefits include early educators.
    • Ensure early educators are considered among essential workers, integral to our economic infrastructure and pandemic recovery efforts.
    • Ensure early educators have the provisions necessary to protect their well-being including access to supplies, unemployment benefits, and health insurance.
    • Ensure access to adequate health supports including testing and care.
    • Ensure early educators are part of labor planning, resources, policy and laws. This includes State and local economic recovery planning.

thread Support thread is offering training at no cost through June 30, 2023, and has introduced COVID specific workshops. thread is also partnering with the State of Alaska Child Care Program Office to disburse federal stimulus funding to early educators enrolled in Alaska SEED, Alaska’s early childhood professional development system.

4. Alaska doesn’t work without child care. The business community must be part of the child care solution.
IMPACT: Alaska’s workforce is retained for business and economic recovery.

Issue – Approximately a third of Alaska workers have children under the age of 18. During the pandemic, the struggle between balancing work and home has become even harder for working families. Many working mothers have left the workforce as a result. As Alaskans return to the workforce, adequate and affordable child care options are necessary to avoid the negative financial impacts to families and the economy. In 2021, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation reported that Alaska loses $165 million annually due to child care breakdowns. Individual businesses can be a part of the solution to ensure a strong workforce.

Solutions – Alaska’s businesses are encouraged to:

  • Learn employee needs and consider the best support.
  • Offer the most flexibility as possible, including:
    • Remote work options.
    • Flexible work schedules.
    • Options to bring children to work.
  • Support the emotional health/stress of employees through the pandemic.
    • Offer benefits to support wellness including EAP, food assistance, wellness supports, and more.
  • Invest in employee child care supports, including:
    • Offer funding to cover/offset child care costs.
    • Purchase “slots” for employees at a licensed community-based child care program.
    • Create a licensed child care program (or out of school care) at the work site for employees.
  • Adopt a policy position in support of child care including family-friendly policies, and public investments for an effective child care system as part of the State’s economic development agenda.

thread Support – Individual businesses must decide how best to support their working families in keeping their children safe and healthy. thread can be a resource for businesses interested in providing child care solutions to employees.

Looking Forward to a New Vision

thread is on a mission for affordable, high-quality child care. Join us.

While COVID-19 continues to challenge the country in unprecedented ways, there is an opportunity to build a new vision for child care. In 2021, President Biden introduced Build Back Better, a legislative framework which includes significant investment in child care, and early learning system.  If signed into law, it will transform child care.  In November 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the law, but met opposition in the US Senate.

With or without Build Back Better, there is a raised awareness of the need for change in the child care system to better serve families, early educators and children.  Alaska can leverage this movement towards a long-term solution of significant investment, stronger policies and a community focus to build a robust, adaptable child care system. The workforce can offer creative solutions but needs support.

To achieve affordable, high-quality child care that benefits children, families, business, and our economy, Alaska must act today for a better tomorrow.

Join thread to build child care back better for Alaska!

  • Take part in thread‘s future community discussions. Email to join us. 
  • Have heart! Spend time with your family and children to be inspired for change.
  • Reach out to your early educators, other families, and employees to stay in touch on the needs and ways to help and support.
  • Educate yourself and others on child care issues.
  • Advocate for child care and share your story with your legislators. Sign up for thread‘s action center.
  • Donate now. 

*Child Care is defined as licensed and regulated child care, Head Start/Early Head Start and Pre-elementary (Pre-K) programs.