Local businesses pivoting to fill childcare needs

As local businesses are opening back up this month and employees are trying to return to work, it’s exposed a critical lack in childcare options.

Recognizing that need, local agencies joined to create a summer childcare consortium. The group includes Family Connections, Great Falls Public Schools, Cascade County City-County Health Department, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and the Great Falls Development Authority.

The group is working with existing childcare providers as well as encouraging businesses who already have programs for children to pivot their business models to be able to expand to childcare programs. To do that, they’re helping businesses obtain emergency temporary licensing from the state and connecting them with food programs, scholarships, safety and screening protocols, employee forms and referral services.

[The childcare, and other COVID guides, are available here]

Several of the emergency childcare programs that were established during the governor’s stay home order have ended, and many summer camp programs are being canceled due to COVID and existing daycare providers are operating at lower capacity, all contributing to a significant loss of childcare slots, according to Jason Nitschke of the Great Falls Development Authority.

Montana moving to Phase 2 reopening on June 1

“There’s an immediate need to enable people to go back to work,” he said.

From an economic development perspective, Nitschke said that if businesses can’t get employees back to work fully or full productivity, “we’re in trouble and that’s unfortunately the reality.”

A number of local businesses, such as the Great Falls Gymnastics Academy, already offered programs for children.

But, they didn’t offer daycare and weren’t licensed, so they can’t access food or scholarship programs to help families cover the costs, Nitschke said.

Brenda Wrigley, owner of the gymnastics academy downtown, said they have offered camps and other programs, but are now pursuing the emergency licensure to be able to operate a daycare as well. That will also deem her business essential should there be another wave of COVID and families will have a place to bring children if they have to work.

“Community partnerships are pulling together for the same purpose in helping kids to be able to have a safe environment while their parents are able to go to work. That’s our goal,” Wrigley said.

She said that she’s pursuing the emergency temporary licensure now to help fill the immediate need for childcare through the pandemic.

Wrigley has also launched a new preschool program that operates three days a week for three hours with eight children to a teacher. There’s a morning and afternoon session.

Heather McCartney-Duty of Family Connections Montana said that “as we started to move toward summer, we saw that some of the care that had been offered during pandemic would disappear.”

She had been in touch with Nitschke at GFDA about developing sustainable business models for childcare providers and they realized a larger conversation was needed about the immediate and significant childcare needs in the community.

That led to conversations with GFDA, GFPS, CCHD and DPHHS on what it would take to get more childcare in nontraditional ways.

The group developed a guide for businesses to help them move from weeklong camps to summerlong childcare programs, she said.

“This is an evolving idea,” McCartney-Duty said, and the guide was put together in 10 days. “We moved quickly because we knew the need would be immediate.”

She said that the emergency licensure process is streamlined and if approved, then families can apply for the Best Beginnings Scholarship to support participation in those programs.

Family Connections is a resource and referral agency and McCartney-Duty said she’s been in weekly contact with local childcare providers during COVID to find out if they’re open, check their numbers and what their needs are.

The needs have ranged from sanitizer to diapers.

She said 90 percent are open again and their slots are already filled. That reflects pre-COVID when childcare was already very tight, she said.

This is the first week that GFPS and other care programs haven’t been available they’re anxious to see how those numbers shake out, she said.

The idea of the emergency licensure is that it comes into existense to meet this need right now and then comes to an end, likely in the fall if school reopens and then those businesses can decide if they want to pursue a full license or other programs, McCartney-Duty said.

As aspect the group initially hadn’t thought of was food for children in these programs, so GFPS has partnered with them so those programs can access to summer lunch program at no cost to the children or the facilities offering programming.

To learn more about available childcare programs or for a no-cost referral, call Family Connections at 761-6010.