Mapleton day care

Jessica Halverson plays with toddlers in the Eagle’s Nest Child Care Center in November 2019. The center reopened last fall through a partnership between the Maple River School District and the city of Mapleton. Advocates worry the state needs to do more to address child care needs in Greater Minnesota to prevent providers from going out of business and potentially stifling economic growth.

MANKATO — Though child care is one of many issues the Minnesota Legislature put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local lawmakers and business advocates say the need for action is growing.

Region Nine Development Commission officials say the pandemic hasn’t lessened the need for child care in Greater Minnesota, even as more area residents are working from home.

“It’s magnified the problem even more,” said Nicole Griensewic, executive director of Region Nine. “Now you have even more safety concerns and the availability of how many children can be in a facility or in a certain home.”

Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, had hoped to make child care a priority leading into this year’s session. He introduced a bill that would have set aside $25 million in grants to build community child care centers in rural Minnesota. Before the pandemic, the bill drew support from prominent DFL and GOP lawmakers in what Brand calls “the most bipartisan bill (he’s) ever introduced.”

Though House Democrats included Brand’s bill in several public infrastructure funding proposals, child care center funding didn’t make the latest public works agreement between the DFL-majority House and GOP-majority Senate.

“We have a shortage of providers and that’s economically stifling to our economy,” Brand said. “Cities and counties would be required to match the cost of the grant, so realistically, this is a $50 million investment in Greater Minnesota.”

Child care providers struggled in March and April as the state went into lockdown, but many providers have since gone back to work over the summer under the state’s pandemic regulations. Yet state officials and lawmakers say it’s too soon to tell whether those same providers will still be needed as demand for child care services has gone down.

“The demand was huge, and now that has changed significantly with so much unemployment and a lot of families just choosing to stay with their children at home,” said Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal. “Even after COVID, there’s going to be a lot more jobs that are flexible, work-from-home and child care needs will have to be reassessed.”

Munson has advocated for fewer state child care regulations and less child care payment fraud on behalf of area providers in the area in the past. He agrees the state needs to put more priority on child care, but he said it’s too soon to tell whether the need will remain due to the shift in workplace practices.

About 39% of child care slots in south-central Minnesota remain open as of Monday, according to Minnesota Management and Budget. Child care advocates say that number will drastically drop soon as schools start up within the next few weeks.

“Many folks who are working from home realize it’s impossible with children under 6 to get work done,” said Kristian Braekkan, senior regional planner for Region Nine.

Braekkan said he hasn’t seen any data thus far indicating less need for child care, but the ongoing pandemic has hurt many providers financially, which could prove disastrous over the next few months.

Though Minnesota has allocated more than $115 million in various state and federal grants and reimbursement rates toward child care providers, the pandemic caused major funding issues for providers who suddenly found themselves without as many children to care for this year. Region Nine researchers say it’s unclear how many providers may have quit, but any more stressors to day cares in the area could cause a wave of closures.

Region Nine and other economic development organizations such as the Greater Minnesota Partnership are pushing lawmakers for more funding for child care centers, more uniform child care regulations at the county level and increased child care reimbursement rates for providers, among other issues.

Advocates say the state needs to make child care a priority sooner rather than later now that schools are starting up again, as older children won’t be as available to care for younger siblings during the school year.

“It comes down to straight-up economic development,” Griensewic said. “It is a great economic development need in southern Minnesota.”

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