Despite large demand, daycares and preschools are operating at lower capacity, worsening an existing childcare shortage.
Susan Purdy, director at Sonbeam Preschool and Daycare in Portland, apologized for getting emotional on the phone. “My heart is just breaking for the parents,” she says, as she describes the challenging situation faced by both parents and childcare facilities under COVID-19 guidelines.
Purdy has had many difficult conversations since the COVID-19 pandemic began with parents who were not considered essential workers. “We had to say, ‘Even though this is your home, you can’t come here anymore.’”
Executive Order 20-12 requires all childcare providers to close unless they are providing emergency childcare to workers deemed essential, such as health care providers.
Approximately half of childcare providers across the state are now closed, and only 12% of children who were in daycare before the pandemic are enrolled, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
While some daycares have placed children on rotating schedules, and have been able to accommodate more than 10 children if some are part-time, the loss of tuition has meant financial disruption. Overnight Sonbeam Preschool and Daycare went from taking care of 30 children to 14.
While larger daycares with more resources are better able to follow the guidelines, Purdy says she cannot predict how long her business will be viable.
“I can’t really advertise when I don't know how many kids I am going to be able to take. I can’t say, ‘Hey, come check us out, we might have a place for you in August.’ The larger places will be okay but I’m in a no-win situation.”
Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who represents Oregon’s 1st District in the House of Representatives, released a report on childcare burdens in the state and is calling for $50 billion in emergency funding for childcare workers and families with children in the next coronavirus response package, with another $50 billion for long-term recovery.
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The report outlines the increased costs to families and financial burdens on childcare providers during the COVID-19 crisis. Communities of color as well as rural communities face an even shorter supply of childcare.
Furthermore, lack of access to childcare is keeping families from returning to work, particularly mothers who often bear an oversized share of childcare responsibilities.
Purdy recalls one woman whose employer gave her a two-week deadline to return to work. With no end to the emergency childcare guidelines in sight, even with Multnomah County’s Phase 1 reopening on June 19, there will be no way for her to take care of her child and maintain her employment.
According to 2019 a report by the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences, all 36 counties in Oregon were childcare deserts for infants and toddlers before the pandemic, with only one childcare slot open for every three children.
Robert Ferrell, who assists his wife Carol in running Cozy Cottage Child Care out of their home in Salem, echoed Purdy’s sentiments. He criticized the state for having too many barriers to entry into the childcare business in the first place, including certifications he does not believe are necessary. He says COVID-19 exposed what was already a mounting problem.
“To some degree they’ve been building this childcare shortage for a while. Our phone doesn't stop ringing. We usually get two or three calls a day from people looking for care and they can't find it. I wish we could help them,” he says. “No one gets into the childcare business to strike it rich.”
Not all childcare facilities are struggling, however. Michelle Mazzulo, regional vice president at KinderCare Education, a national early-childhood education corporation headquartered in Portland, says she is optimistic about the future but that her company is still advocating for more capacity in the childcare sector.
KinderCare has reopened all 17 of its Oregon facilities under the new guidelines. Her company’s technological development has allowed it to offer at-home curriculum to help teach children and create routines for families sheltering in place.
KinderCare provides students with daily health screenings.
She says that demand is continuing to build, and even with its larger pool of resources, it has not been able to satisfy all the demand. Its licensing department has partnered with the state to release additional capacity for both large and small childcare providers.
“Childcare is essential to the fabric of our economy,” she says. “As businesses across the country reopen and families return to work, we know that childcare will be more important than ever.”
In the meantime, childcare facilities will have to operate with less tuition and more restrictions. According to Congresswoman Bonamici’s report, 27% of childcare facilities reported that they would be unable to survive financially without government assistance, which could cause 44,000 childcare openings to vanish permanently.
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