Stakeholders are meeting this month to discuss early childhood care in Lake County. Bright Start Learning Center, which previously operated out of the East Fifth Street building pictured above, has faced several closures and relocations, underscoring the need for diversified local childcare options.

When COVID-19 forced Bright Start Learning Center to close its doors last spring, local parents were left with limited options for accessible and affordable childcare.

The Center Early Childhood Programs, operated by Lake County School District, helped meet some of the need. But with nearly 400 children ages five or younger estimated to be living in Lake County, the shortage of available childcare is pressing even with both facilities running – and critical when one shuts down.

Recognizing the urgent need for more accessible early childhood care, county and city partners have started working to address an old issue in a new way, Commissioner Kayla Marcella told the Herald.

In early 2021, Lake County teamed up with Diane Muntean, who operates the Muntean Leadership Group out of Steamboat Springs, to develop a sustainable, long-term childcare strategy for Leadville and Lake County.

Last Wednesday, nearly 30 people joined the first of two workshops to be facilitated by Muntean meant to build this strategy.

Representatives from city and county government, employees of the Lake County School District, leaders from local nonprofit organizations and community members weighed in to share their ideas about how to embark on the work needed.

Participants shared their experiences with childcare in Lake County, began constructing short- and long-term goals to address the issues parents of Lake County have long grappled with, and reviewed relevant data.

In preparation for the meeting, Lake County Department of Human Services sent a survey out to residents asking about their childcare needs and how they meet them.

The data are revealing. Of the 134 respondents, 69% said they required childcare three-to-five days a week, and many expressed difficulty meeting that need.

The top barriers survey respondents reported that prevents parents from accessing adequate childcare are a lack of available providers, no openings at providers that do exist, and cost.

Many said they needed to quit working entirely or reduce hours worked to provide childcare, and 67% expressed that their ability to work is limited by lack of accessible childcare.

In a first step towards addressing these issues, participants in last week’s workshop voiced their needs and goals for the coming three to six months. High among them were the need for a stop-gap childcare program to help meet immediate needs.

In the long run, participants said Lake County needs to develop sustainable childcare programs, work to reduce the barriers for qualified childcare providers to enter the profession and expand the number of early childhood programs available to residents, all while keeping an eye toward equity.

“We’re at a point that our systems have broken down, and we’re able to sort of rebuild right now, and so I just want to be sure that we’re approaching our planning from an equity perspective,” Full Circle of Lake County Executive Director Stephanie Cole said during the meeting while imparting the need to address the problems in a way that serves the whole community.

By working with Muntean and approaching the conversation with a wide range of community partners, Marcella said she is hopeful Lake County can address these issues with a strategy that encompasses these key points.

The next workshop to further develop a childcare strategy is scheduled to take place on Zoom this Friday Feb. 19 from 9 a.m. to noon.

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