Alaska scrambles to spend nearly $100M in federal child care relief as centers close

A woman poses for a photograph inside while wearing a teal jacket and face mask.
Amanda Gornik runs Gold Creek Child Development Center in downtown Juneau. She says she needs more government aid to make up for pandemic losses. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

The first round of checks are in the mail to help child care centers across Alaska. They represent just 5% of the nearly $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding the state has to stabilize its child care system.

Meanwhile, child care centers say they need more — and it can’t come fast enough.

Amanda Gornik is the director of Gold Creek Child Development Center, a preschool and day care in downtown Juneau. The desks in an empty classroom come up to her shins. There can be up to 20 students in these little desks, but there are currently only six.

Gornik is running the center at less than half capacity right now, at serious financial cost to the business. Just 29 students are enrolled in the whole center — and that’s despite huge demand.

“I have 125 kids on our waiting list,” Gornik said. She has room for more students, but she doesn’t have the staff to support them, so she can’t offer up any spots.

Gornik said she’s trying to hire more teachers. She’s offering a $1,000 signing bonus once they complete three months of work. She has 11 teachers and she would like about three more.

But things are going in the wrong direction. Two teachers have put in their notice since Gornik started as the center’s director two months ago.

“COVID is stressing our staff out. Because we don’t have as many here, they’re overworked. We have a lot of teachers doing overtime,” she said. “Stress sometimes isn’t worth it for them. And so they’re leaving. And it’s devastating to us all.”

RELATED: Alaska has a teacher retention problem. The state is ready to pay someone to help solve it.

COVID-19 is stressing a system that was already struggling. Nearly a fifth of the state’s licensed child care facilities have closed since March 2020, according to its Childcare Program Office.

Relief money is on the way. The state received about $95 million from the federal government this spring to address the child care crunch. It’s scrambling to figure out how best to distribute the money, while guidance from the feds trickles in. So far, the state has written a grant program to distribute only $5 million of that statewide.

“We are hearing that providers are concerned that there isn’t enough funding being distributed initially and that the timeline is taking too long,” said Shawnda O’Brien, the director of the state’s Division of Public Assistance, the office responsible for distributing the funds to child care centers.

O’Brian’s staff is moving cautiously because the federal millions are a one-time payment. They want to make an impact that’s sustainable with a funding source that’s limited.

The typical budget to manage Alaska’s child care programs is about $28 million. Federal relief more than quadruples it.

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So, even though she and her staff just got the windfall of their dreams, they say it’s a challenge to spend it right.

Meanwhile, care centers are hurting. Gornik’s Juneau preschool asked the state for $6,800 and is likely to get it. The state is awarding all requests up to $11,000 from qualifying centers. Gornik plans to spend it on bonuses for her current teachers and signing bonuses to attract new ones.

She says that money won’t go very far.

“We will take anything that we can get. And I’m blessed to use this to further our recruitment process,” Gornik said.

The state aims to have a plan for the remaining $90 million of federal funds by the end of the year. Applications for the next round of funding should be available between January and March.

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