EMPORIA — Emporia State University will close the doors on its Center for Early Childhood Education after the upcoming school year, making it the only state university without on-campus child care.
This shutdown is happening in the midst of a national child care crisis. In Lyon County, there are between 21-30 children per opening at a child care facility as of 2021, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas.
“I think most folks, particularly parents of young children, can appreciate that one of the hardest things to do is do your work and go to your job and do all of the activities that those kids need to do while still doing a good job at work,” said Erika Martin, associate professor of aquatic ecology and biology education at ESU. “There are folks out there that can have someone stay at home with their child, and that’s wonderful. Most of us have one or more working parents, where having someone in the home just isn’t an option.”
Emporia State will be the only state university without campus child care when it closes the child care center in August 2023. Wichita State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Pittsburg State University and Fort Hays State all have existing programs.
“I think it speaks volumes that the other institutions do offer (child care), and ESU is not going to look into that,” Martin said. “That’s embarrassing to them.”
Following news of the closing in May, ESU students, faculty, staff, and alumni created a petition to keep the Center for Early Childhood Education on campus and prevent the demolition of the Butcher Education Center, where the Center for Early Childhood Education Center is located. It is also home to the Sociology, Anthropology, Crime and Delinquencies Studies programs.
The early childhood center “serves a vital function in allowing caregiving students to remain enrolled and caregiving faculty and staff to do and stay in their jobs,” the petition stated. “To that end, we are dismayed that the university would make this decision in light of persistent and worsening community child care needs as well as urgent student and employee retention and morale concerns.”
The petition had 345 signatures as of July 19.
“In sum, we urge President Ken Hush and the ESU Leadership Team to reconsider the demolition of the Butcher Education Center building and the closure of CECE, for it is in direct opposition to its strategic plan and its core values of 1) excellence 2) respect 3) responsibility and 4) service,” the petition stated.
Hush said he believes the school’s resources could be better used elsewhere.
“Emporia State is focused on the successful future of the university, and part of that is making difficult decisions,” Hush said in the news release announcing the closure. “As we work to develop and evolve our core academic mission and the changing needs of our students, we must plan where to invest our resources, as well as decide where we must discontinue programs or spaces.”
ESU said it will help families find other child care arrangements, but for many parents, child care isn’t affordable.
“You have to be able to have a job that not only pays for the child care but also a little bit more to make the job worth going into,” Martin said.
As the mother of a 3-year-old, Martin said, she knows and empathizes with people who were directly impacted by news of the closing.
“If she wakes up with a fever and I have three classes to teach that day, well s***,” Martin said. “What do you do? Well, you can call your friends and faculty and ask for people to cover you and maybe some students will, or just cancel classes. But, that’s tough and there’s not a lot of help out there for parents to deal with that kind of thing.”
While asking family to help take care of a child is beneficial, for many, it’s just not feasible. Martin’s family, for example, is 13 hours away. In a college town, many students, staff and faculty don’t have the ability to ask family for help.
For over a decade, child care centers have been closing their doors across the U.S. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem, causing more closings as a result of staff shortages. This doesn’t change the need of more than 12 million households across the country that have children younger than 6.
In June, a month after the announcement of the ESU closing, Gov. Laura Kelly visited Emporia for the grand opening of the Jones Early Childhood Development Center, a new addition to the Emporia Public School District. It was built approximately two miles from ESU.
Emporia Public Schools describe the new facility as “designed to serve the needs of young children in the district through play-based learning to grow social skills, coordination, and empower learners. The facility will have expanded classrooms and learning environments, student support spaces, and indoor activity areas. Outdoor playgrounds will feature age-appropriate areas for play and exploration.”
During her visit, Kelly also made a stop at a local senior care facility.
“We are focused on ensuring Kansans of all ages have the support and resources they need to have happy, full lives,” Kelly said. “Both the early childhood development center and senior care facility I visited today are proof that communities like Emporia are making strides in how they care for Kansans at all stages of life.”