SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The number of childcare facilities continues to slump in the Upper Midwest, and it’s likely the COVID-19 pandemic will take a further toll, according to recently released annual tracking report and multiple surveys by organizations who monitor child care options.

Particularly hard hit in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota are family providers, a major piece of the childcare puzzle in largely rural states, where families set up their own, often in-home facilities to care for their friends' and neighbors' children.

"With a spread-out, rural setting, it seems to be more feasible, oftentimes, to have family childcare," said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research in technology at Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group which released the report in conjunction with its new Child Care Data Center funded by the the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The state by state data summarized key findings from data collected in 2019 and partial 2020 information and included Child Care Aware's summary of the pandemic's effects based on 88 surveys on the topic conducted by nonprofits and gathered by The Urban Institute.

Family care providers most vulnerable

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South Dakota lost 55 family child care centers from 2018-2020 and now has 407 statewide. Minnesota and North Dakota, which don't have data for 2020, saw declines of 428 in Minnesota, from 2018-2019 for a total of 7,952, and a decline of 24 in North Dakota for a total of 873 last year.

All three states maintained or added child care centers — nonfamily daycares — in recent years, with the exception of South Dakota in 2018, where what is likely a data classification problem indicates for that one year the state had an additional 150 or so child care centers.

While Child Care Aware didn't research state-specific reasons for the decline in family child care options, Dobbins said family providers usually feature unpredictable income and hours, serve a more limited group of children for relatively low pay and benefits. They're also more vulnerable to shocks, such as that offered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taysha Wantoch blows bubbles for Silus Garcia, from left, Tayvalin Wantoch, Raylee Mckinney, Eden Endfield and Bell Swank while playing on Thursday afternoon at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell, SD. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Taysha Wantoch blows bubbles for Silus Garcia, from left, Tayvalin Wantoch, Raylee Mckinney, Eden Endfield and Bell Swank while playing on Thursday afternoon at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell, SD. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Those factors were highlighted in a March report from the federal National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance, which highlighted Minnesota, where a state legislative task force traced a crash in the number of family care providers dating back to 2005, for many of the aforementioned reasons, as well as providers struggling with regulations and aging out of the business.

The loss of child care options, especially less-expensive family childcare providers, is a serious family budget question. According to data collected by Child Care Aware, child care is the single most-expensive family budget item. And in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, family child care costs several thousand dollars less per child, per year than child care centers.

Initial reports: Pandemic a brutal factor

The surveys collected by The Urban Institute paint a dire preliminary picture of the hits the child care business is taking due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tracking from multiple technology platforms for child care providers show that the number of providers now open still hasn't recovered from pre-pandemic levels. And attendance continues to lag even that slow return to business. A June survey of 5,344 child care providers across the country by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that nearly nine out of 10 said they were serving fewer children than before the pandemic, a clear survival threat a tight-margin business.

“This report shows that when COVID-19 was layered onto the already fragile child care system, it shattered,” said Lynette M. Fraga, Ph.D., CEO of Child Care Aware of America. “Many providers remain closed or are in danger of closing, parents are struggling to find quality child care arrangements that will allow them to work productively, and without a reliable, steady workforce, our country will not recover economically from the pandemic-related shutdown. Simply put: no child care, no recovery.”

Very few organizations track child care providers, cost and access at a state by state level. Dobbins, with Child Care Aware, said the organization sees the data gathering as a crucial part of understanding the national child care situation, and a key component of advocacy.

“The childcare system in and of itself is fragmented and inequitable and inaccessible and underfunded, and I would say the data pieces of that childcare system are the same," Dobbins said. "We know we need good data, we need standardized data, we need similar data across the country to understand both the landscape and understand where things are equitable and inequitable."