Colorado child care providers worry new proposal will put them out of business, but applaud rules on animals and potty chairs

In the foreground, three baskets on top of a brown bookshelf. In the background blurred slightly is a classroom with desks, chairs, and a woman standing near open windows with light coming in.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Art supplies on the shelf in Shaniq Wells’ before- and after-school childcare classroom at Trevista at Horace Mann in Sunnyside. April 8, 2022.

Child care providers in Colorado’s universal preschool program say stricter staff-student ratio rules under consideration by state officials could put them out of business. The ratios are part of a package of quality standards the state must adopt as part of the roll out of universal preschool, now in its first year.

“If implemented quickly and with no additional support, this change could have a significant and likely detrimental impact on the availability of preschool slots, cost of wrap around care for families and provider program budgets,” said Abigail Jones of the Early Care in Education Consortium, a national alliance of early child care providers with members in Colorado.

Jones testified at a public rulemaking hearing hosted by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood on Monday. The meeting was focused on quality standards and rules for home-based providers. 

During the hearing, the department agreed to adopt a new rule that allows families making at or less than 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (about $30,000 a year for a family of four) to automatically qualify for 30 free hours of preschool. That change will make an estimated 3,000 children eligible for the program.

But the bulk of the hearing centered on quality standards — best practices to make sure learning environments in the state’s universal preschool program are high quality and accessible for all families. Rules include educator-to-child ratios, teacher qualifications, instructional practices and limitations on suspension and expulsion.

Jones said if the lower ratios are implemented, state reimbursements to providers would need to rise in order for them to survive. She worries the number of available student slots would drop, reducing access for families as the state continues to expand eligibility.  

Historically, classrooms for 4 year olds have been allowed a ratio of one teacher for every 12 children. The proposed rule would decrease the ratio to one teacher for every 10 children. That means most classrooms with 24 children and two teachers would lose four children. Providers estimate that would decrease a program’s revenue by about $60,000. With most child care providers barely surviving now, they’re worried a change in ratio would mean shutting down.

D'Arla Mezzacapo, a child care provider with more than 40 years experience, said multiple changes on the heels of the pandemic are too much for providers to absorb right now. She has two teachers in a classroom with 20 students that is currently licensed for more, but if she gets two more students, she’ll have to hire another teacher.

“I worry about the cost associated with that. The overall cost for a staff person is about $50,000 a year, and a loss of the 10 slots, if we change the room ratios as well, is going to amount to about $175,000.”

Group sizes would be limited to 20 children, down from 24.

Lisa Roy, executive director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, listened to the feedback on the quality standards. The department also received hundreds of written comments. Roy will decide whether to adopt the proposed rules at the next hearing on Feb. 22.  A special rules committee, however, could recommend changes at a Feb. 8 meeting.

Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Association of Colorado, said the proposed student-teacher ratios are based on national standards rather than reflecting Colorado’s unique system of school-based and private providers.

CDEC officials have proposed delaying the new ratio’s introduction until July 2025 and allowing providers to apply for a waiver. Most of the other rules would need to be implemented by the beginning of next school year.

“A delay doesn't mean we are heard,” Alexander said. “A waiver process that doesn't tell anyone how to qualify for a waiver and is not anticipated to be allowed is not a useful process for us.”

Another provider, Pamela Harris, president and CEO of Mile High Early Learning and a member of Colorado’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission, called the waiver process “onerous.”

She said providers also see the additional training requirements for staff as burdensome.

“I worry about smaller providers, I worry about family childcare homes,” Harris said. “We have some capacity, but even that two additional days of training is money and it's closed programs… It's overtime. And I'm disheartened that our input … it was the majority of people … said that that is burdensome.”

Harris, who played a significant role in advising state leaders as UPK was being developed, said she is disappointed that the department doesn’t seem to be hearing provider feedback on this issue.

The department’s Rebecca Vlasin said officials will do everything they can to work with providers to minimize the burden.

“We understand fully the need to have a thriving workforce, to recruit more teachers, to retain the teachers we have,” she said.

Other quality standards faced less pushback. For example, what kids do must be culturally and developmentally appropriate, must meet the needs of dual language learners, and align with the state’s academic standards. 

Every three years, independent evaluators will visit each provider. The state must also create a resource bank to help providers implement the standards.

Chickens, reptiles, amphibians, and one crustacean saved by the governor

Monday’s meeting also included the adoption of new rules governing providers who care for children in their homes. They address everything from how field trips must be conducted to the type of bedding and food allowed for children in the home.

Several of the original proposals raised the ire of home-based providers. Chief among them was a ban on potty chairs for young children, otherwise known as non-flushing toilets. While the state argued that the handling of human waste is dangerous, providers argued that some small children are stressed out by using a regular toilet.

The state also wanted to prohibit children from being exposed to poultry, reptiles and amphibians. It said it is not uncommon for pathogens to be carried by some animals. Home care providers rallied to express their concerns, filling out pages of feedback. Some providers described the rural cultural value of agricultural education. Their programs allowed children to garden and raise chickens, help collect eggs, and feed and water chicks.

Others said all the new rules amounted to “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

“We will now lose our fun pet gecko lizard because of overreaching rules that do more harm than good,” wrote one provider. “We practice good hand washing habits before and after touching. We understand how to treat animals and creatures with kindness.”

Officials appeared to have heard the home-based providers’ concerns. The final proposal reflected some of their requested changes.

Carrie Kennedy, with the Colorado Association of Family Child Care and a provider in Jefferson County, thanked the department for listening and “recognizing home providers as subject matter experts in the field who truly know what these rules look like in actual application.”

In the newly adopted rules, preschoolers can still use potties for toilet training, home-based care providers can apply sunscreen without daily documentation, and preschoolers can continue to learn from farm animals, as long as rules on supervision, hygiene, and disinfecting are followed.

Sandra Richardson, a teacher at Little Kiga Farm in Peyton, was ecstatic.

“I will dance the cha cha with my kids tomorrow with the donkeys and the chickens and the ducks. … I'm so happy,” she said.

Gov. Jared Polis himself weighed in on making sure children could still have access to one particular omnivorous scavenger.

“The hermit crab is no longer on the list of animals that must be inaccessible,” declared Carin Rosa, director of the division of early learning licensing.

There was also a last-minute save for hot chocolate on special occasions. In the interest of preventing childhood obesity and cavities, there is a ban on hot chocolate and chocolate milk in preschools. Adams County child care provider Charlotte Phelps says on snow days, hot chocolate can be a nice treat for the children who brave coming to school.

“I understand that Colorado is going for ‘Healthy America’ and healthy children, but I think that is a little excessive to take that out completely,” Phelps said.

Roy was swayed. She agreed to keep the general prohibition but tweak the administrative guidance.

“You will not be penalized for giving hot chocolate on a special occasion like a snowy day,” she said.

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