Jordyn Rossignol (left), owner of Miss Jordyn's Child Care and Preschool, speaks with RSU 39 Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Jane McCall and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson on the need for greater child care access in Aroostook County. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — A public child care center in Aroostook County that made national headlines for losing 23 teachers faces closure after its one-time allocation of federal stimulus money runs out in October.

Jordyn Rossignol runs the only public child care center in the Caribou region, which encompasses the city’s 80 square miles and several small towns. But when her American Rescue Plan funding ends, it will leave 106 children ranging in age from 6 months to 12 years old without child care.

Rossignol’s problem highlights the difficulty of running this crucial service in Maine’s most rural counties.

Though Aroostook has the highest rate of pre-K students in Maine, it’s classified as a “child care desert” due to the scarcity of licensed providers who serve infants and toddlers.

A 2021 report from the Council for a Strong America found that 26 percent of children in Maine’s most rural counties, including Aroostook, Washington, Somerset and Piscataquis, live in one of those deserts — which is where there are more than three children under age 5 for each licensed child care slot. The council used data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to draw its conclusions.

But a potential partnership between Rossignol’s center and the Caribou-Stockholm school district could serve as a model for how Maine could make child care access more equitable and affordable.

Unlike Aroostook’s school-based pre-K programs, public and home-based child care centers do not receive state funding and rely solely on tuition that families pay out of pocket.

Rossignol, who operates Miss Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool, has seen at least 20 families pull their children out of her center since the start of COVID-19 — at first because one parent left work to care for their children who attended school remotely, and now due to the economic challenges that the pandemic has caused, such as higher costs for food and gas.

Jordyn Rossignol (right), owner of Miss Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool, speaks with Maine DOE Commissioner Pander Makin (middle) and RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak about the challenges facing child care providers in Aroostook County. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Although at least a dozen home-based daycares exist within Caribou, they are licensed for fewer than 20 children, making Rossignol’s the only public daycare with a capacity of more than 100. With 106 children, Rossignol is operating at her center’s capacity.

The number of home-based child care centers in Maine dropped 27.5 percent during the COVID pandemic, decreasing access overall.

Recently, Rossignol held a roundtable discussion that included school officials, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson and Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin. The group explored how they could collaborate with Rossignol to offer daily child care services at Caribou Community School, the SAD 39 district’s pre-K to grade 8 school.

The Caribou school district would provide daycare space and licensed teachers, ed techs and social workers that the district already employs, Superintendent Tim Doak said. Rossignol’s staff would benefit from the same early childhood training as RSU 39 employees.

That type of partnership would benefit parents and children, Doak said. More parents could return to the workforce without the stress of paying tuition, while their children gain quality early education.

“For the longest time, we have thought of child care as babysitting services, but it’s about getting kids ready for school,” Doak said.

Doak’s district has seen firsthand how lack of access to child care prevents many parents from staying in the workforce.

“We almost lost a science teacher this year because of that,” he said.

Rossignol and Doak are not alone in their concerns. Last year, the pair organized two community meetings in Fort Fairfield, where Doak is also district superintendent, to gauge support for a new early childhood center there.

Those conversations have since died down and might not continue if the Fort Fairfield district doesn’t find a way to build a center with little or no reliance on local taxpayers. For any child care partnership to succeed, the program would need reliable state funding sources,  Rossignol said.

The group hopes to tap into newly established state resources, including Gov. Janet Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan. The plan includes $25 million dedicated to helping child care programs renovate, expand or build new facilities.

The Maine DOE, which recently rolled out a first round of ARPA-funded pre-K monies, is exploring ways to help districts like Caribou that want to create public child care partnerships, Commissioner Makin said Thursday while visiting Aroostook County.

Rossignol hopes that this time the connections she has made result in more than just conversations.

“We need to find a concrete solution before it’s too late,” she said.