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TEST-Iowa Is Facing A Childcare Crisis And COVID-19 Has Made It Worse

Natalie Krebs
A woman helps her son.

Childcare in Iowa appears to be reaching a crisis. Nearly a quarter of the state’s residents are estimated to live in a childcare desert while the annual cost has been estimated to be more than tuition at a public university. This year addressing childcare was set to be a priority in the state legislature, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Last March at the Hope Learning Center in Chariton, a room full of about a dozen sleepy toddlers, fresh out of nap time, ate an afternoon snack of juice and crackers.

They do morning meetings, shapes, letters, numbers, all that good stuff," said Abbee Nielsen, who was then the director of Hope Learning Center, the only licensed child care center in rural Lucas County.

Nielsen said despite demand, her center isn’t operating at capacity. That’s because with a starting rate of just $8.35 an hour, she’s struggling to retain teachers while keeping the non-profit’s rates affordable for parents.

"I have parents texting me. Just one last night said, 'Hey, I have a family. Their in-home decided not to do daycare anymore. And she has no she has no childcare. Can you help out?' And I was like, I would love to, but I can't," Nielsen said.

Nielsen is no longer at the center. She left at the end of May for a teaching job.

And her replacement, long time employee Mackenzie Stites, said the COVID-19 pandemic has the center facing yet another challenge. Enrollment has dropped off sharply by 40 percent after she and Nielsen worked so hard to recruit teachers.

"It's kind of a little discouraging just because things were going so well. And now it's like, Are we going to have to rebuild that? Are we going to have to start over again and kind of like, you know," Stites said.

Even before COVID-19, childcare centers in Iowa were already struggling, and the problem seemed to be coming to a head.

Between 2014 and 2019, the number of programs listed under the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral Center dropped 37 percent. During that same period, the number of programs accepting kids on state child care assistance also decreased - by 42 percent.