High prices and lengthy waitlists: How Alaska’s child care crisis is impacting Anchorage families

a portrait of a brunette woman
Tawni Jetter and her husband alternated their work schedule to watch their two children in Utah before they moved to Alaska. Upon arriving, Jetter found it difficult searching for child care. (Mizelle Mayo/ Alaska Public Media)

Tawni Jetter and her husband moved to Anchorage last July from Salt Lake City, and finding child care became an immediate priority. Their realtor recommended they hire an au pair, a live-in nanny who could watch their boys — 3-year-old Calvin and 18-month-old Emerson. Jetter said that worked for about five months, until their nanny broke her foot and couldn’t care for the kids. 

“So we had my mother-in-law fly up,” Jetter said. “And she watched the boys for two weeks while we sort of scrambled to try to figure out what we were going to do with child care.”

Jetter said she tried everything: putting her kids on a dozen waitlists, directly reaching out to providers, asking anyone and everyone where their daycare was and if there were any openings. 

“You know, I started feeling like a crazy person,” Jetter said, “because I’d be at the grocery store and be like, the person checking me out kind of looks of childbearing age. Maybe she has some kids, maybe she has a daycare.”

Jetter’s not alone. 

Across the state, Alaska families are having a harder and harder time finding available and affordable child care. Many daycares have closed during the pandemic and low wages have led to an exodus of workers. Families say it’s a crisis. The lack of care means some are quitting their jobs, considering moving out of state or putting a big chunk of their income toward care. 

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Reanne Honemann-Queja, family services manager at thread Alaska, says a shortage of child care providers is leading to longer waitlists for families. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Reanne Honemann-Queja is the family services manager at thread Alaska, a nonprofit that works to connect families to child care and advocate for early education. She said finding child care has always been a problem, but the pandemic strained the already tight system even further. The number of child care providers shrank.

“Some have left the state,” she said. “Some have retired. Some have just decided to find another career during this time. But there has definitely been a decrease in providers”

Thread has been lobbying the state for additional resources. 

There are currently proposals in the Legislature to infuse the child care industry with millions in order to retain workers, though Gov. Mike Dunleavy has expressed disinterest in those proposals. Instead, he announced last month he’d be starting a task force to look at the state’s child care crisis, though the task force hasn’t been assembled yet. 

In the meantime, Alaska families continue to struggle to find care. Honemann-Queja said openings fill up almost immediately, making them hard to track. 

“My best advice for people who are just finding out that they’re pregnant is literally, celebrate with your family, and then start looking for childcare,” Honemann-Queja said. “Getting on waitlists as early as you can.”

a mother playing with her baby on the floor
Amanda Dale spends her time tending to her 7-month-old baby, Lina. Dale also has a 3-year-old boy who had been on waitlists for child care ever since he was born. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Amanda Dale knows the waitlist game. She and her husband spent over a year trying to find child care for her son Ethan, who’s now 3 years old. Dale said she tracked providers on a spreadsheet and, at times, there were more than 20 kids ahead of her son on a list. After months of waiting, she was emotional when they finally got a spot last August.

“A woman from the preschool called and said, ‘We have a full time spot for your son,’ and I started crying,” Dale said. “I apologized to her, like, ‘Gosh, I must seem very weird that I’m crying about this.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, it happens all the time. Like people are so relieved to get a call from me.’”

Even after families like Dale’s secure a spot, the challenges don’t stop. Since there’s such a tight market, child care has become increasingly expensive for families. Dale said she and her husband pay more than $1,400 a month for their son, which she compared to a mortgage payment. 

“It’s almost punitive,” Dale said. “Yeah, we chose to have kids… 100%. But that’s how the world works. That’s how things keep going. And so it’s very strange to me that we would make it so hard for folks.”

Now Dale is thinking about when her 7-month-old daughter Lina will need child care, too. 

“When we first enrolled him, it was two months upfront and startup fees. So we paid over $3,000 that first month, which is nuts,” Dale said. “And when she starts there’s a small discount, which is great for siblings, but it’ll essentially be about $2,700 a month.”

a pregnant mom sits at a table with a dog near
Jamie Smith is pregnant and due in October, and already had her baby on child care waitlists. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Jamie Smith is pregnant, due in October, and already getting her child on waitlists, hoping for a spot to open up early next year.

After spending years trying to conceive, Smith and her husband opted for in vitro fertilization. Blood tests are looking good, Smith said, and she and her husband are starting to prepare their home for a baby. In some ways, she said, their path to pregnancy prepared them for the process of looking for daycare. 

“I think the stress of infertility has really prepared me well for all these things I can’t control,” Smith said. “We can just kind of set everything up, and it’s gonna knock down how it’s gonna knock down.”

Still, she said, it’s hard not to wonder what they’ll do if they don’t find daycare. 

“Does my husband quit his job? Do I quit my job? Does one of us go part-time if we can only find part-time childcare,” Smith said. “And we don’t have family in the state. So then you have to think of… well, we really can’t find anywhere, do we have to leave the state and move? And then you have to sell the house.”

an ultrasound on the refrigerator
Jamie Smith has an ultrasound of her baby on the fridge.(Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Even though the daunting prospect of finding child care looms over Smith and her husband, she hasn’t lost her sense of excitement for being a mother.

“Experiencing the world through the eyes of a child and teaching them kind of all the tools and skills and like attitudes that we hope to pass on, I think will be really fun,” Smith said.

For some parents, the patience of waiting for a daycare spot does pay off. Jetter, the Salt Lake City transplant with two young boys, finally found a child care provider this month after one of her husband’s coworkers clued them in to an opening. She said she felt a little nervous on their first day away from home, but she’s hopeful the worst of the experience is over. 

“My 3-and-a-half year old, he’s fine. I know he’s super excited about it,” Jetter said. “But my little one, you know, it breaks Mama’s heart a little bit. But she sent me a couple pictures, I think they’re doing okay.”

For other families, the search continues.

a line of toy cars and trucks on the ground
Tawni Jetter created a play area for her children while waiting for an opening in child care. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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