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Families in rural Maine struggle to find child care during COVID-19 pandemic

A 2019 report by the Maine Children's Alliance indicates a typical family spends between 11 to 22 percent of their income to pay for full-time child care.

GARDINER, Maine — Finding affordable, high-quality child care in Maine has been a longstanding issue – but the coronavirus pandemic has brought on additional challenges. Some facilities around the state have had to close or limit capacities, leaving families with fewer options.

According to a 2019 report by the Maine Children’s Alliance, 73 percent of Maine children under the age of six have parents that are both involved in the work force. That means that about 54,000 children of that age need child care. The report also indicates a typical Maine family spends between 11 to 22 percent of their income to pay for full-time childcare. That’s compared to a federal benchmark of about seven percent.

Still, experts say high quality early learning is essential – especially for young kids. A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates about 700 to 1,000 new neural connections form every second in young brains; genetics and experiences shape brain development; and a 3-year-old’s vocabulary can actually predict their third grade reading ability.

“Whether a child is having really positive growing experiences, versus in some sort of stressful environment, can make a big difference in their foundation for future learning and development,” Stephanie Eglinton, the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom.

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Finding that environment, especially in rural areas, isn’t always an easy task. Bonnie Nichols, a mother of five children of all different ages, can attest. She recently moved from Gardiner to Whitefield and was surprised to find that child care options in their new town are few and far between.

RELATED: Parents balancing work, kids struggle as Maine child care providers are hit hard by pandemic

“There’s nothing. There’s, like, literally nothing,” Nichols expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine Friday afternoon on her front lawn, adding, “What are you supposed to do? It’s your family. You have to take care of your family. They also need to eat.”

Nichols says that’s why she was so thankful to hear about – and have her kids accepted into – a new program with the Boys and Girls Club of Kennebec Valley. This fall, BGCKV is addressing the needs of RSU 12 (which includes Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Whitefield, and Windsor) by busing students from surrounding towns to an after-school program at Chelsea Elementary School. The program starts Wednesday, September 2, and will include safety measures like maximizing space on the bus and having family members sit together, requiring masks, keeping bus windows open, and cleaning and sanitizing buses.

“Last spring, we did have some day cares in the area close – and we didn’t have enough childcare facilities in the area to begin with,” Howard Tuttle, the superintendent of RSU 12, told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom, regarding the need for programs like this.

The busing program is also a result of COVID-19-related issues at the BGCKV’s main facility in Gardiner. Staff members say they’ve had to reduce the number of kids they can serve there from 500 to 175. In the past, kids were coming from as far away as South Portland, so the restrictions have been tough to manage.

“It’s been really difficult to say we are at our max capacity at this point,” expressed Ingrid Stanchfield, the BGCKV’s CEO.

“Those that are able to come back with us – really, this is their second home,” Nicole Cooley, the PR and marketing coordinator for BGCKV, noted.

To keep everyone safe, BGCKV will be screening each child for the coronavirus when they arrive, enforcing frequent washing of hands, and separating children by age group.

RELATED: Maine DHHS awards CARES Act funding to support essential workers, child care providers in response to COVID-19

The BGCKV is also using the pandemic as an opportunity to push for a new facility – a project that’s been in the making since 2014 when the teen center was renovated. The new facility would be built right next to the current location and would cost about $10 million. Staff members say they are at about $7 million now – so, they have about $3 million to go until groundbreaking can happen.

Money comes from private individual and foundation donors. Staff members say the new building is designed to house more children, even with COVID-19 restrictions, by putting people in their own places and pods.

You can learn more about the BGCKV here.