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Early learning center calls on state to relax certification requirements amid worker shortage

Pre-pandemic, the state was meeting the child care needs of school-age children but not the younger population. Now, the state isn't able to meet demand for either.

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — A lack of certified child care professionals willing and able to work during the pandemic is pushing Colorado's child care economy to the brink of extinction, according to one licensed early learning center in Parker.

The owner of The Meadows Early Learning Center, Katie McDonald, is asking the state to ease regulations to help her bring staff through her doors so that she can keep them open to families in her community.

"If we lose our child care centers, parents are going to lose their jobs, there’s going to be no economy in Colorado," McDonald told 9NEWS.

From March to May of this year, The Meadows lost almost half of its children. 

Still, McDonald made a point to keep her Parker facility open during the pandemic, mostly to the benefit of essential workers.

By July, all of the children and more were back at The Meadows. 

"It’s returned 100-fold and we are back to the point where we actually have a waitlist until 2022," McDonald said.

However, she is still missing nearly a third of her staff.

McDonald said some of her certified early childhood education (ECE) teachers were not comfortable returning to work, others needed to remain at home to help their own children navigate remote learning, while another group found they could make more money in other essential jobs. 

"We love those people and we want them to come back but the other problem is, there is nobody to replace them with. In the last 30 days, we have received 57 applications. Two were qualified," McDonald said.

RELATED: Infant dies after incident at unlicensed daycare

According to the job website Indeed, The Meadows isn't facing this dilemma alone.

There are 351 open child care job postings in Douglas County and the surrounding area.

Without adequate staffing, McDonald said she will be forced to close her doors for good, further adding to Colorado's shortage of available child care.

In July, the director of Early Care and Learning for the Office of Early Childhood, Erin Mewhinney, said before the pandemic, Colorado had an adequate supply of child care for school-age children but was falling far short in the younger age group.

"What has really shifted this time is that we are now seeing that we are no longer able to meet the demand of our school-age population in addition to what we were already seeing in our zero to five population," she said.

In an effort to stay open to Colorado families, McDonald is circulating a petition asking the state for change, understanding and leniency during the pandemic.

"We would love to be able to just find people who truly love children, who want to be in this field, and who want to learn and grow. We’re happy to pay for their education, for their training, for all of that," McDonald said.

The petition makes two asks of the state while leaving background check requirements untouched:

  1. Allow the hiring of candidates that will pass background checks and have them qualify as “assistants” with 20 levels 2 hours on PDIS.
  2. Allow the hiring of candidates that will pass background checks, have 20 hours of PDIS, and take EQUIT as well as Pyramid Plus within 90 days of employment. These candidates will qualify as group leaders. Both options will be valid for only one calendar year as a form of certification.

McDonald believes these concessions on regulations will allow her and other licensed child care facilities to provide quality care to Colorado families. 

In response to McDonald's petition, the state told 9NEWS it does not issue blanket waivers of qualifications.

"We definitely understand the challenges especially during the pandemic of people finding qualified staff. We do have a process for waivers and appeals through our office," said Carin Rosa, the director of childcare licensing for the state.

That process typically includes health and safety assessments of facilities requesting a waiver on a case-by-case basis. 

"We’ve issued over 100 emergency waivers just related to the pandemic," Rosa said.

Mewhinney said "there is definitely a labor shortage in parts of the state" but there is also a need to "balance health and safety with recognizing those already in the field." 

RELATED: State releases new coronavirus guidance for schools, daycare centers

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