Wintersteen approves strategies for addressing child care shortage

Iowa State will take action in several ways to help address the critical shortage of affordable quality child care that employee and student parents face, including repurposing a little-used space to increase infant and toddler care on campus and seeking off-campus partners to boost access throughout the community.

The measures were recommended by the child care task force formed by President Wendy Wintersteen last fall to study the issue, which was identified as a priority in the wake of the campus climate survey conducted in 2017. Wintersteen approved moving forward with all seven recommendations for improving child care availability and affordability the task force suggested in its Sept. 16 report.

"Supporting our faculty, staff and students in their roles as parents and caregivers is very important. Certainly, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the urgency of this issue. I am encouraged that your recommendations will allow us to make meaningful progress," Wintersteen said in her Oct. 14 response to the report.

Shortly after first convening in September 2019, the task force determined it would take a variety of strategies to counter the child care shortage. It met monthly through March to develop four short-term and three longer-term recommendations, which do not account explicitly for the heightened child care challenges COVID-19 has created.

"Nevertheless, the need for access to affordable child care has never been so great. We encourage the university to make child care access a priority in partnership with city, county, and local businesses," the task force said in the report.

Converting underused space

The Comfort Zone, located in the Family Resource Center building that also houses University Community Childcare, has provided child care for mildly ill children since 1993, but the program has been closed since the pandemic began. Even before COVID-19, The Comfort Zone was underutilized. From 2015 to 2019, it was closed 44% of its normal operating hours because no children were attending. Less than 1% of employees used the center during that time period.

The task force recommended converting The Comfort Zone to care for infants and toddlers. While the small space would only accommodate eight children, any additional capacity would help. There are more than 350 infants among the nearly 500 children on a waiting list for the three campus child care centers, which only have 58 infant slots. The average wait time for a slot in a campus center is more than two years.

Wintersteen asked university human resources (UHR) to proceed with the conversion.

Other short-term plans

The task force also suggested developing a program to promote flexible work schedules, a step expedited when COVID-19 struck. With many employees working from home due to the pandemic, Wintersteen has urged supervisors and employees to be creative about adapting employees' schedules as needed to deal with child care challenges, and a full-time online learning care program for K-6 students opened this week in Ross Hall.

UHR also is working on guidelines for flexible work arrangements that would apply after the pandemic passes, and Wintersteen encouraged that work to continue. The faculty work-life advisory committee will collaborate with the provost's office and ISU ADVANCE to raise awareness of flexible work policies and programs for faculty.

Wintersteen also approved recommendations to gather additional data on the needs of students who are parents and to ask the ISU Foundation to seek funding for student-parent scholarships. Even with the highest subsidy available based on income, a year of full-time infant care at an ISU child care center is more expensive than a year of residential tuition and fees, which is one of the talking points the task force offered for use in fundraising.

Longer-term plans

The lack of reliable and affordable child care in Ames isn't just an Iowa State problem. It's a community issue. The task force suggested working with the city, Story County, the Chamber of Commerce, United Way and area businesses to identify potential sites where agencies or providers could establish child care centers. Creating a standing leadership committee to work with community partners on expanding child care accessibility was another recommendation.

Vice president for UHR Kristi Darr will chair a committee that will seek to develop partnerships devoted to building child care capacity in the Ames area, Wintersteen said.

Wintersteen also asked UHR to take the lead on the task force's recommendation to increase the subsidy for student child care that comes from Student Government. That could involve incentivizing recruitment and training of new home child care providers, perhaps in exchange for reserving a certain number of slots for student parents.