Elon University will open a child care development center for children ages newborn to 2-years-old of Elon faculty, staff and students, according to Vice President for Finance and Administration Janet Williams.
In an interview with Elon News Network, university President Connie Book said the center is being created because of a child care crisis in Alamance County due to COVID-19. Williams said phase one of the center is planned for an opening in spring 2025.
Williams said Elon hired Bright Horizons, an educational support systems company, to conduct a demand study in late 2022 on the need for child care in Alamance County. Williams said while the study is not published publicly, it illuminated a need for child care on campus.
“There is an issue in our area and others in the United States of the supply of quality child care centers,” Williams said. “We’ve identified that the biggest issue is around infants, toddlers and twos, and that’s why we’re focusing on that area right now.”
Tom Kerr, a lecturer in political science and policy studies, is a father of a three-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl. Kerr said while both are currently in child care, it was difficult to find.
“Alamance County doesn’t have a whole lot of good options,” Kerr said. “For young children — like one and under — it’s pretty slim pickings.”
Kerr, who lives in Alamance County, said some of his friends with children have gotten on waitlists before their children are even born and oftentimes, parents find child care through private homes instead of public businesses.
“There are a lot of private people who do it as well — people just operating out of their houses,” Kerr said. “Our youngest goes there, but that was just happenstance that we were able to find her and she did have an availability.”
Kerr said it’s important for child care providers to offer flexible hours — especially to professors whose schedules vary.
“It’s not like working a 9-to-5 every day,” Kerr said. “Having something on campus that knows our strange schedules and will probably have some flexibility in drop-off times — that’s going to be a huge help.”
Kerr said many formal child care centers require parents to sign up for eight hours of care, five days a week. He said oftentimes, parents do not need this many hours of care but end up paying for it just to insure their child’s place.
“We’d be paying more than we’re accessing it,” Kerr said. “But a lot of people do that anyways — even if their kid’s not there — they’re paying for it, just so they can have the slot when they do need it.”
Kerr said some of his friends in Alamance County have traveled as far as Durham for quality child care. According to Kerr, one of the most important aspects of a child care provider is updated CPR certification and introductory instruction.
“Really, we look for someone that doesn’t just plop them in front of a TV, if they have some sort of cognitive stimulation setup,” Kerr said.
Williams said the university will hire a child care service provider accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
“We want to make sure that they are accredited because we want to have a very high quality, five-star center,” Williams said.
Kerr said another important factor in child care now is the opportunity for children to socialize.
“Especially with our firstborn — he was a pandemic baby — he had no experience with other kids,” Kerr said. “We were looking for a kind of nurturing environment where he can be exposed to other kids.”
While Kerr’s two children will have aged out of the university child care center by the time it opens in spring 2025, Kerr said it’s still important to offer on-campus options for the Elon community.
“Even just having it on or near campus is going to be vital for a lot of people,” Kerr said. “If you have someone right where you work, you can drop off and then just go to your office.”
Kerr said when looking for child care, he also prioritizes safety.
“A good, secure, outside place so they can get outside,” Kerr said. “Really just safety – ‘how accessible it is to the public? Is it somewhere near a main street?’ — just different safety elements that would help put parents at ease.”
Williams said the university does not yet have a cost estimate for building the center, or a specific location, but she said the university is looking at either constructing a new building or renovating an empty building located on South Campus.
“We want to make sure we have the space for the outdoor play area and group activities and circulation space — properly outfitted child rooms,” Williams said.
Kerr said child care is a large financial undertaking.
“Sometimes people have to do the calculations — I’ve had friends who’ve found it was actually more financially sound for one of them not to work than to pay for child care.”
Kerr said the child care center committee needs to keep in mind the various levels of financial stability within university employees.
“They have to consider the fact that it is going to open university-wide and they need to consider all the different levels of income.”
Williams said child care through the center will not be free, but the cost will not be “prohibitively expensive.”
She said opening a center on campus will support Elon’s 2023-2024 institutional priority number 11, which is to “foster a dynamic working environment for faculty and staff across career stages and professional ranks with new leadership and learning pathways, and greater access to feedback, coaching and mentoring.”
“It really is around advancing the development of an infant, toddler, and two’s child care center,” Williams said. “There’s a real need for that for our faculty and staff. But it also allows us to attract and retain talent and just maintain Elon’s strong workplace and culture.”
Phase one of the center will offer child care only to Elon faculty, staff and students, but Williams said subsequent phases could expand the center to include a larger age range of children and potentially open the center to the public.
Phase one is being planned by a committee headed by Williams consisting of five members of Elon faculty and staff: Jenny Gonzalez, interior designer at planning, design and construction management; Jason Husser, professor of political science and policy studies and director of the Elon Poll; Robert Johnson, director of event and space management; Heidi Hollingsworth, associate professor of education; and Jack Rodenfels, director of professional and continuing studies.
Husser said the creation of the center is also being spurred by economic and population growth in Alamance County in addition to effects of COVID-19 like businesses closing.
“We’ve had a lot of people move in simultaneously due to the pandemic as well as broader factors in the economy,” Husser said. “A number of child care centers have closed locally so we’re in a situation within the county in which there’s growing demand and greatly diminishing supply at the same time, meaning there’s a shortage of high quality child care centers available for our faculty, staff and students.”
He said on the committee for the new child care center, he is sharing faculty perspectives on what features are most important for a child care center — including the great demand for quality child care.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories of people waiting well over a year on waiting lists and still not having a child in child care,” Husser said. “This puts us as an institution vulnerable to what a lot of Americans face, which is people needing to miss work and not being able to have the professional career they intended because of the lack of child care services.”
A 2018 Center for American Progress study found that “There are more than five infants and toddlers for every licensed child care slot. This is more than three times the ratio for 3- through- 5-year-olds.”
According to the North Carolina Early Education Coalition, North Carolina is considered a “child care desert” for infants and toddlers — meaning there are five families with babies competing for every licensed child care slot.
According to the NCEEC, only 38% of infants and toddlers are enrolled in 5-star child care facilities in suburban areas — of which Alamance County is one. In addition, “only 18.7% of the infant-toddler population can be served in the existing supply of licensed infant-toddler programs.”
Husser said Elon recognized this when deciding to open a child care center solely for a younger age group.
“Nationally — as well as our best indicators locally — there is a greater shortage of child care in that age range than there is for three-year-olds to four-year-olds,” Husser said.
As a father of a 14-month-old, he said it took him over a year to find quality child care.
“We made do until then,” Husser said, “but it certainly is difficult having a busy career and a young child if that child doesn’t have a place to be while parents need to be at work.”
He said his son will likely have aged out of the center when it first opens, but would send him if possible.
“Maybe he’ll be in the first class,” Husser said. “I’d be honored to send him if it works out that way.”