Infant child care expanding into CMC Aspen campus this year

While it will be a small dent in filling the dearth of available child care for infants in the area, the city of Aspen is partnering with Colorado Mountain College to add a classroom later this year.

It will be able to accommodate as many as 10 babies and two staff members, said Shirley Ritter, director of the city’s sales tax funded Kids First program.

The CMC Trustees at a recent board meeting approved the plan, which is part of a partnership with the city that was established last fall with the goal to provide an early learning lab and workforce development program to address the lack of affordable child care in the valley.

“They gave direction to proceed,” said Steve Skadron, vice president and dean of Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen and Carbondale campuses. “They thought it was a good idea. … It’s kind of like a living lab.”

Ritter acknowledged that one classroom is a small capacity addition, given that there are only 32 licensed child care spaces available for infants in Pitkin County and an average of 137 babies are born each year.

“This is a short-term project to meet an immediate need for infant care,” she said, adding details still need to be worked out on how it will run and who will run it. “We hope to be ready by ski season when people are hopefully going back to work and are ready to put their kids in group care.”

The project will include start-up equipment and materials needed to outfit the classroom, as well as financial aid for families.

The funding, projected to initially cost $50,000, will come from the city’s multimillion dollar COVID-19 relief and recovery fund.

Aspen City Council in April appropriated $1 million toward child care, which is being used in a variety of ways, one of which is emergency financial aid for people who are currently not working due to COVID-19.

It is meant for people seeking or returning to work, and perhaps do not yet meet the qualifications for the Kids First regular financial aid program.

Kids First is offering half of the cost of child care tuition for two days a week while people are re-entering the workforce.

Ritter said there is plenty of money available and only a half dozen people have applied.

The eligibility requirements are much less stringent than the Kids First quarterly financial aid for people who are currently working and need help paying for child care.

The deadline to apply for regular financial aid is Aug. 1, with assistance beginning Sept. 1.

“We are not just giving money away,” Ritter said. “We are supporting families who need child care.”

Elected officials acknowledge that there is a child care crisis in Aspen and the surrounding area.

The city of Aspen has taken the lead by hiring a special projects manager to coordinate the effort, which now includes Pitkin County, nonprofits and large employers like the school district, Aspen Skiing Co., the hospital and a handful of other entities.

All of those organizations need professionals as part of their workforce and if there isn’t sufficient child care for working class families, the local economy and community suffers.

“It’s a workforce and economic issue but it’s also about having good quality care for our kiddos,” Ritter said. “This is a new day to have this much council and city support.”

The city’s long-term plans are slowly inching forward to expand child care with CMC and other community partners amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“This is a good time to plan,” Ritter said.

She and others are identifying partners and new additional funding sources, but are approaching it with caution given the pandemic.

“We are operating in a different world than we were only months ago,” she wrote in a memo to council. “There are new considerations due to budget reductions, different ways to engage the community, and the perceived need for child care expansion.”