Even before they know there’s a baby on the way, some prospective parents register their child for daycare in Grand Forks.

It’s never too soon, it seems, to secure a child’s place in daycare – the demand is that high and the waiting list can be lengthy.

In Grand Forks, the demand for child care is “very high,” said Dan Polasky, who owns and operates Wonder Years with his wife, Paula Polasky, in Grand Forks.

In response to consumer demand, 160 new child care spots are expected to open in Grand Forks in the next four months. Wonder Years is expanding its child care services to accept 60 more children and a new daycare, Emmys Place Child Care, expected to open in late January in south Grand Forks, will enroll 100 children.

Despite the increase, though, daycare openings will continue to be in significant short supply. Less than half of the potential demand for licensed daycare is being met in Grand Forks County, according to Child Care Aware of North Dakota, a program of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, which collects and maintains data about the state’s child care industry.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

“On our wait list, we’re booked out until November 2020,” Polasky said. “Every spot we have, up through that time frame, is already spoken for. Parents have put deposits down for those spots.

“A lot of them actually are not even pregnant yet. They lock in spots with the hope that they’ll get that spot, or that they’ll be pregnant in time to get those spots.”

For the past few years, that 14-month wait time has been the “typical situation,” he said.

With the intense demand for daycare services, coupled with an acute shortage of providers, parents face long wait lists and substantial costs. Once they find an adequate daycare option, families often pay from $7,000 to $10,000 per child annually, depending on the age of the child and the type of facility, either home-based or a center.

It’s a critical issue in the state and region – so critical that even the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation has moved to financially support, for the first time, the efforts of local businesses to create or expand local child care opportunities.

Long lists

About 200 kids are on the waiting list for the two daycare programs sponsored by Mayville State University in Grand Forks, said Anna Sjol, education and disabilities manager, Child Development Programs.

“It’s very difficult for families to find daycare,” she said.

Parents can apply online to enroll their children, and are interviewed to assess their need for the Early Head Start and Head Start programs, said Sjol. “Our goal is to serve the neediest of the needy.”

“It’s just so hard,” she said. “You want to be able to help them right away, but there’s just not room.”

MSU also operates daycare programs in Hillsboro, Mayville, Portland and Buxton, but Grand Forks has the longest wait list, she said.

Racheal and Andy Wright, Grand Forks, had trouble finding daycare for their twin boys, now 1.

“At the beginning it was really difficult finding somewhere that’s licensed that would take two infants,” Racheal Wright said.

“For the first year, the boys went to a home daycare that was working on getting a license. We couldn’t find another on such short notice, for the money we could afford to pay.”

The Wrights were paying from $800 to $1,000 per month for daycare, she said.

“Daycare is very expensive, I feel like, in this town,” Wright said. “It costs more for infants because of the formula and diapers and that stuff (that is supplied) at most daycares.”

In North Dakota, households with a single wage-earner pay 39% of their income for infant care in a daycare center, according to Child Care Aware of North Dakota. For two children, nearly 74% of a single parent income is spent on child care. Married parents of two children living at the poverty line pay 80% of their income for center care.

The cost of care for two children in North Dakota is nearly twice the annual cost of college tuition at a four-year public college, according to CCAND.

New options

The Polaskys are planning a 7,000-square-foot, single-story addition to the east side of the Wonder Years building to accommodate the growing need for infant care in the area.

“We’ve been talking about (expanding) for several years, actually,” said Polasky, who has owned Wonder Years for nearly 15 years. “There are not a lot of centers in town that provide infant care.

“The (child care) problem is just getting worse and the demand is just getting higher and higher, and we wanted to help address that.”

The addition will accommodate 48 infants, a significant increase from the 16 infants the facility currently can handle. Of the 48 new spots, only 19 are left, he said, “so demand is high, even though we don’t have a firm date of when it’s going to be open yet.”

Polasky hopes the new addition will open in December or January, depending on the availability of an excavator, he said.

“We’ll be looking for good people, as soon as we get a start date,” Polasky said.

But finding and retaining qualified employees for daycare centers is a major concern.

Staffing “is always difficult,” Polasky said. “It’s difficult for all businesses right now, but it’s always a difficult issue in child care. That’s kind of a nationwide issue.”

Licensing and background requirements “are very strict,” he said. “Child care has more strict background checks, more so than any other industry – more so than teachers in schools and anyone else.”

Also, requirements for continuing education and “the pay issue” affect businesses’ efforts to recruit and retain employees, he said. Jobs in child care “are traditionally not the highest-paying jobs, and we can only charge what parents can afford,” Polasky said.

Wages and benefits may contribute to daycare centers’ difficulty attracting and retaining staff, but “I would say there’s a multitude of reasons,” said Kay Larson, team lead with Child Care Aware of North Dakota.

“It depends on the program type. I know for facilities and centers that hire staff, that’s a huge component to running their operation,” Larson said. “A family child care provider might go into the business because they want to stay at home when they’re raising their young children. And so they weigh that with the income they’re getting, because that’s a huge benefit for their family.”

For those interested in starting a daycare, “finding a facility is a big challenge,” Larson said. “You’re looking for the right kind of place to run a child care program. It must be appropriate and safe for children.”

In small communities seeking to open a daycare, “we’ve looked at things like old grocery stores and bars,” Larson said.

Government requirements are numerous and specific, mandating features such as the minimum number of square feet per child and outdoor space, she said. “The plumbing has to be in the right space and it must have child-size toilets.”

Because of regulations that require low staffing ratios for infants – typically one teacher per four kids up to 18 months old – there’s “very little profit” in infant care, Polasky said, “and, in a lot of plans, there is no profit in infants.”

In contrast, for older children, the ratio may be up to 20 kids per teacher, he said.

Ripple effects

Lack of child care services is no small issue, say those who are closest to it.

The inability to find affordable daycare keeps parents from entering or returning to the job market, or from pursuing education and training to help prepare them for a better job.

“We actually support child care expansions in the community, because we recognize that it’s important to workforce development,” said Keith Lund, president and CEO of Grand Forks Region Economic Development. “It’s an important component of trying to maximize workforce in our community.

“Simply put, if you can’t find daycare, you can’t work at a job.”

The city’s Growth Fund committee adopted this issue as a high priority last year and has provided financial support, in the form of interest rate buy-down accessibility, for the Wonder Years expansion and the new Emmys Place, Lund said.

Those investments should yield about 160 new daycare slots in Grand Forks in the coming months. That would bring to about 3,400 the number of slots in licensed daycare in Grand Forks County, according to Child Care Aware of North Dakota.

Shortages statewide

Throughout North Dakota, the capacity for child care – or the number of openings in childcare facilities – reached a peak, 37,929, in September 2018 and has slipped slowly, by about 500, since then.

“When we look across – because we have that trend data for quite some time – it’s been pretty much stable. We’re not seeing really big gains and really big losses,” said Larson.

In the past two years, Grand Forks County had a net gain of 161 spots in licensed daycare, according to Child Care Aware of North Dakota. The daycare shortage is mirrored in the state’s major cities as well as many of its rural communities.

Grand Forks’ shortage is not unique, said Brandon Baumbach, business development manager with the Grand Forks EDC.

“North Dakota’s average need being met is 39%. Some communities do better than others,” Baumbach said.

Grand Forks County, with 43.9% of the potential demand for licensed daycare being met, fares better than some other, high-population counties, according to Child Care Aware of North Dakota. The figure is 62.9% in Cass, which includes Fargo; 36.6% in Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck; and 27.23% in Ward County, which includes Minot.

To meet half the demand, Grand Forks County needs an additional 569 spots. Ward County needs to add 2,022 spots, making it the neediest in the state, followed by Burleigh County, which needs 1,674 spots, and Morton County, which includes Mandan, at 1,069 spots.

“It’s tough in rural areas,” Baumbach said.

Sarah Olson of Manvel, N.D., knows that all too well.

In her search for daycare for two of her children, who are 4 and 6 years old, she found that the four daycare facilities in town “are full and the waiting list is long,” said Olson, who’s been a stay-at-home mom.

“I need someone to take care of my kids,” she said, “so I can go back to work.”

Daycare is “crazy expensive,” she said. “I can’t afford Grand Forks prices.”

But “it’s not so much about the money,” she said.

She and many other parents want to keep their children in Manvel, and in school there, with the friends they’re growing up with, rather than taking them to Grand Forks.

Olson has found a local mother who has a child at home and can take in a couple more, she said.

“When you grow up in a small town, and you find a good small town, you stay with it – and that’s Manvel.”