OK Capitol

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ENID — Daycare classrooms at Garfield Elementary School buzz with activity.

The youngest are having lunch and learning to move. Across the hall, a more boisterous class of toddlers have playtime under the eye of their teacher.

From 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each school day, Enid Public Schools uses five classrooms at the elementary school to operate an employee-only, low-cost daycare program that provides childcare for the children of teachers, staff and substitute teachers.

Since opening in August 2019, the center has seen demand for its services balloon so much that it’s reached its 85-child capacity limit, and still 15 families are on the wait list. Enid Public Schools is in the process of opening another location in July, and already 60 of its 100 spots are reserved.

The district is among a growing number that offer low or no-cost childcare to employees in an effort to ensure that public school teachers and staff can continue to work after having children.

The state Department of Human Services, which licenses district-run daycares, doesn’t know how many districts are operating employee-only facilities across the state, but experts and advocates say growing numbers are in the process of mustering the considerable financial resources it takes to open one.

Districts that can offer employees reliable, low-cost and easily accessible childcare are finding they have a recruiting advantage in the era of educator shortages. Public school employees, who are predominantly female, meanwhile, say the employee-focused daycares enable them to continue to teach in communities where there are significant childcare shortages or in areas where they’d traditionally be priced out because of high tuition costs.

Statewide, about 55% of Oklahomans live in areas that don’t have enough licensed childcare options to support working parents, according to the state Department of Human Services. An estimated 34 counties in the state, including Garfield County where Enid is located, are classified as “childcare deserts.”

State Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, who taught for 15 years, said he’s seen a lot of teachers leave the profession because they either couldn’t find available daycare or afford it amid the continued shortage of childcare providers.

He has filed Senate Bill 16 to create a pilot program to help districts establish on-site employee childcare and help employees afford to pay for the care.

He said that when his wife, who also worked in public schools, became pregnant, the two sat down, did the math and discovered they wouldn’t make much extra money after paying for daycare. His wife ultimately opted to remain in the classroom, and they hired a babysitter.

“I’ve seen the gap, and I think this will fill a lot of needs in schools,” Bullard said, adding that he wants to target the initial investment at existing school daycares.

He said some districts have had employee childcare programs for a long time, but the state hasn’t invested any resources to help get them started. He said he’s struggled to get numbers about how many district-run employee daycares currently exist, and what they cost each year on average.

Enid’s employee daycare costs about $281,000 a year to operate, but parent tuition covers the entire cost. Tuition covers the 17 employee salaries and benefits, supplies, food and transportation to the site for after-school care, district officials said. The district charges parents of infants $140 per week. Parents of children ages 1 to 4 pay $120 while those using after-school care pay $45 per week.

“We really are trying to fill whatever niche we can for our teachers and their families,” said Randy Rader, Enid’s assistant superintendent of elementary instruction. “We want Enid to be the place that teachers choose to come and work.”

Rader said every superintendent in the state is interested in starting a similar program, but it took his district three years to brainstorm, work out the logistics and get approval to open the center. He said it’s “a big risk” for districts, which can’t be sure they’ll make enough to break even.

Ellyn Alberson, a reading teacher and mother of two toddlers enrolled in Enid’s program, said when the family relocated to Enid for her husband’s job, having daycare on site made the transition easier.

Daycares across the city are full, she said. Enid’s daycare access has been both convenient and a blessing for Alberson and her husband, who coaches baseball at a different school.

“If (daycares) are full, I can’t work,” Alberson said. “I have to have childcare.”

Former State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said when her department asked former certified teachers why they left Oklahoma classrooms, educators responded that they could “not afford to stay in education and pay child care” and other expenses that come after age 26 because of low pay.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Susanna Peters said she was eight weeks pregnant when she requested a spot at Enid’s employee daycare. At the time, Peters worked as a librarian at a different school, but later “jumped at the opportunity” to transfer into the same building.

Peters said the cost is more affordable, her now almost 10-month-old son is in the building where she works, and she trusts the teachers caring for her son.

“It’s one of the best benefits I have of working at Enid,” Peters said.

Ginger Tinney, executive director of the Professional Oklahoma Educators, said Bullard’s bill “is definitely going to be a game changer” for teachers and districts.

She went into labor while teaching her class in Little Axe over 30 years ago.

Tinney opted to leave the classroom for over five years to raise her children, but when she decided to return, she discovered all Norman daycares and childcare programs that served area schools were full.

The family ultimately had to hire a private nanny, so she could return to the workforce, which was expensive, Tinney said.

She said accessible, affordable daycare is “very attractive” to people with small children, and schools that offer it have an edge in hiring.

She said Burlington Public School in rural Alfalfa County opened a childcare center within the past few years that serves the entire community, including district employees’ children, she said. That daycare also has a wait list.

“It keeps everybody long term in the community because it meets such a vital need,” Tinney said of the program. “It does build their program for people who want to be in a smaller school district, have that more hometown community feel. Also, it’s a huge attraction for people who need childcare and that want quality childcare.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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