Rural childcare faces an increasing set of challenges for which there are no easy solutions.
“It’s very hard for small communities in rural counties to support and sustain a childcare center,” said Lori Longueville, director of Child Care Resources and Referrals.
Located on the campus of John A. Logan College in Carterville, it is one of several regional support agencies in Illinois focusing on childcare needs.
“For rural areas the top challenge is to find qualified staff,” she said.
With more and more farmers and farm spouses taking jobs off the farm, finding adequate childcare services is becoming more important. Other families living in rural areas are also having trouble finding care.
“We have a statewide teacher shortage, but it’s really exacerbated in rural areas because you have less population,” Longueville said. “People who get those qualifications take higher paying jobs. That’s been a big issue.”
Low pay is one barrier. While standards for workers are not high, lead teachers must have certain qualifications prescribed by law.
“To be a substitute teacher in schools, you just need an associate’s degree,” Longueville said. “So we saw this whole group of people leave the field.”
Colleen McLaughlin has been forced to reduce her services because of a shortage of workers. McLaughlin is director of the Yellow Brick Road Learning Center in the Williamson County community of Marion, Illinois.
The center has five classrooms now serving 45 children. There is room for more, but not enough teachers. One of the five rooms was shut down during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when the state went into a shelter-at-home mode. But it remains empty well into Phase 4.
“I can add about 10 more children, but this room has no teacher,” McLaughlin said. “I have been attempting to hire a teacher for that room for two months. It’s hard to find someone with those qualifications. It is a stressful job at times and it really doesn’t pay that much.”
“This has been going on for several years,” McLaughlin said. “There aren’t students coming into community colleges choosing that as a career choice when you can become a nurse or beautician and have a better salary and benefits.”
For many rural communities, childcare ranks near the top of the list of priorities. An economic development group in Mount Pulaski is taking a serious look into starting a not-for-profit daycare center.
“What we thought our community needed to grow and move forward, (and) one of them was a daycare center,” said Tom Martin, a member of the group. “A lot of working parents said it is the No. 1 issue for them to find daycare for their young kids.
“We found that there were three in-home daycare centers in the community. They all had waiting lists of over 100 kids. They were just overwhelmed.”
About 15 concerned citizens in the Logan County town of about 1,500 formed a committee to look at the problem and recommend solutions. One possibility is a community- funded childcare center.
“We determined that if we want to draw young people to our town and we could establish a community daycare center, that would be a huge step forward,” Martin said. “We very much want to pursue this.”
The childcare network is comprised of programs that include licensed and license-exempt facilities. The latter are operated by relatives or neighbors and require no legal qualifications. Other centers are more highly regulated.
Longueville doesn’t believe easing qualifications is a good option.
“We don’t want to change the standards. We worked really hard to say this is really important work,” she said. “It can be a deal breaker. We don’t want to go back and say that’s not important. But this gap is important to address.”
Creative options are being introduced in some areas.
One model is a so-called home network, in which a childcare provider piggybacks onto an established center or other entity.
Some don’t want to send children to a center. They want homes, someone they know and trust,” Longueville, said. ”
Martin said the working group in Mount Pulaski hasn’t settled on a plan to address the need for childcare facilities in the community. The group is considering several options, including partnering with another non-profit such as the YMCA.