Millions of relief dollars are finally on the way for Alaska’s child care centers

A masked woman sitting at an office desk
Jaime Shanley at her desk at Little Eagles and Ravens Nest Child Care in Juneau. February 25, 2022. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Last year, the Gold Creek Child Development Center in Juneau was operating at half capacity even though it had more than 100 kids on its wait list. It was struggling to hire and keep teachers. But after an infusion of aid money, Director Amanda Gornik says things have turned around.

“We’re expecting to be at full capacity, staff-wise, and we’re starting to increase our [student] numbers as well,” she said.

The state of Alaska received nearly $100 million dollars last year to support the ailing child care system. But by the end of the year, the state’s Child Care Assistance Program had distributed only about 5% of those federal funds — most of them from the American Rescue Plan Act — in its first round of grants.

Now it has a plan for the rest of the money. Just over $45 million is slated to go directly to child care providers like Gornik.

She has applied for another grant and says the first is already helping because she’s been able to make new hires.

“We will have a total of 15 staff members inside our facility,” Gornik said. “So we’ve almost doubled.”

That means she can enroll kids from the waiting list, so her classrooms are filling up. And she says more staff is better for everyone.

“Kids can feel everything,” she said. “When a staff member comes in and they’re stressed and overworked, the kids feel it. Having more staff to be able to handle the work, decrease the stress. Our students are happier and feeling less stressed as well.”

RELATED: Alaska scrambles to spend nearly $100M in federal child care relief as centers close

The first influx of money hasn’t solved every child care center’s hiring woes. Up the road at Little Eagles and Ravens Nest Child Care, administrator Jamie Shanley says she made a much needed hire in January, but she still needs more staff.

“We are still actively recruiting, and the applicant pool is very small or non-existent. We’re really exhausting our resources and finding different and creative ways to recruit,” Shanley said.

She says the child care system has been broken for a long time — centers have to choose between paying low wages or charging parents more than they can pay.

“We need reliable money. We need to know how much it’s going to be every month. And, you know, something that’s gonna be long lasting,” she said.

Shanley applied for $30,000 in relief money from the state last week.

Christina Hulquist works for the state’s health and social services department, which is administering the grants. She says the “long lasting” part is what took time to figure out. The plan is that direct assistance will continue through October of this year. The department is also investing millions in programs to ease financial strain on families and care centers.

“Now it’s just about getting all of those different strategies stood up, you know. Some of them are brand new programs, so they take a little bit longer, but it’s nice to have a vision and I feel great about the decisions we’ve made so far,” Hulquist said.

The good feeling is echoed by early childhood education boosters in Juneau. Blue Shibler runs Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children, a non-profit. She says the only criticism she’s heard from providers is that they would like to get the grants faster.

“The state, I do think, is doing their best in getting them out equitably. And as fast as they possibly can, while also making sure that they’re complying with all the federal guidance that comes with those funds,” Shibler said.

She praised the state for listening to providers more and investing in their feedback.

The state has begun sending out checks for the second phase of grant funding to child care centers. Applications will be open until June 1.

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