The child care crisis is hitting rural Alaska hard

a woman and a baby
Bailey Schaeffer watches Marley, the son of a Kotzebue resident who is struggling to find child care. (Screenshot from the documentary “At Home/ In Home: Rural Alaska in Crisis”)

Across Alaska, parents are struggling to find child care. It’s especially true in rural Alaska where the lack of child care is leaving parents with few alternatives. Some are having to skip work or cut their hours. Some are even choosing to leave their communities in search of other options.

At the same time, it’s hard to launch a new child care center to fill the gaps, and meet the demand. 

“There’s a lot of barriers related to cost: to start up, to infrastructure, workforce training to be able to pay enough to be able to attract workers,” said Laura Norton-Cruz. “These issues are affecting urban Alaska but even more so in rural communities.”

Norton-Cruz has worked on public health projects in the Northwest Arctic off and on for more than a decade. She co-produced the recent documentary “At Home/ In Home: Rural Alaska in Crisis.” The film is set in Kotzebue. 

Kotzebue has not had a state-licensed child care center for more than a decade.

Like the majority of Alaska, the community is a “child care desert” — where the need for child care outweighs the availability or there are significant barriers in affordability, said Norton-Cruz

A 2021 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that more than 61% of Alaskans live in areas without sufficient child care. That same report found that 77% of parents missed work during the three-month study due to lack of child care.

Norton-Cruz said within the last year communities from Utqiaġvik to Cordova have lost child care centers, and providers have struggled to open new facilities. 

One of the main barriers in rural communities: licensure. 

State licensure ensures child care providers have high standards of quality and care. It’s also important for low-income families who receive child care assistance. For those families, a state-licensed facility is their only option to avoid paying out of pocket. 

Norton-Cruz said a licensed facility is also important for foster children. Without access to licensed care, most foster children in the Kotzebue region under age 5 are forced to leave.

Kotzebue residents Tracey and Bailey Schaeffer are trying to start a licensed facility in their community in their free time. It’d be the first one in Kotzebue since 2011. The mother-daughter team both have full-time jobs and hope to get certified by this summer. But they say they’re encountering major challenges.

According to Tracey, a one-size fits all model doesn’t work in rural Alaska. 

She said there are several hurdles in the rigorous process, and no compensation for rural residents interested in obtaining a license. Paperwork and background checks can take several weeks. The Schaeffers also need to get their home approved by a statewide fire marshal located in Anchorage. Plus, in order to get certified they need to be trained at a licensed facility — the nearest facility is also located a plane ride away, in Anchorage. 

For Bailey and Tracey this means traveling to Anchorage for extended periods of a time. In a scene from the documentary, Tracey spoke about the financial and emotional toll of traveling back and forth. 

“It’s very expensive to stay and can be fairly overwhelming,” she said. “We live in a place where butter costs 10 bucks a pound. You know, you can’t ask someone to work for free.” 

RELATED: How Alaska’s child care crisis is impacting Anchorage families

Norton-Cruz said the lack of child care is not just affecting parents. According to the 2021 report, Alaska’s child care shortage costs the state $165 million per year.

In Kotzebue, the lack of child care is forcing people to move. 

“Attorneys, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, teachers have all had to leave the region, because they haven’t been able to find reliable child care,” said Norton-Cruz.

Norton-Cruz believes one solution is more support for child care from policymakers. She said the Childcare Grant program — the state-funded program that subsidizes wages for licensed facilities — hasn’t increased for 10 years. 

“Workers are not making livable wages,” she said. “The solution is that there needs to be public investment.”

Still, Norton-Cruz said, she’s hopeful that more solutions will arise as Alaska’s child care crisis gains more attention. In early April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration established a child care task force. There are also two bills in the state Legislature which, if passed, would support state funding for child care facilities.

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