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In a Child Care Desert, More Spots Dry Up ▶ [With Video] 

Central Oregon had a big shortage of child care before the pandemic. Now, with far fewer slots, local groups are collaborating to ease the burden.

As part of its economic vitality goals for 2019-2021, the Bend City Council sought to increase available child care slots by 20% as compared to September 2019. Due in part to challenges related to COVID-19, the Council has fallen behind its goal to increase child care availability in the area.

Like much of Oregon, Bend is considered a child care desert—meaning there's one opening for every three or more children who need one. In November 2019, regional businesses, early learning and health organizations and the Bend Chamber hired a Central Oregon childcare accelerator to try to address the issue. However, the position was disbanded earlier this year due to changing priorities and a lack of funding once the pandemic hit. Based on data from NeighborImpact, Ben Hemson, the City of Bend's business advocate in the Department of Economic Development, estimates that available child care slots declined this year from about 5,000 before the pandemic to about 1,600.

The Bystroms are a working family of four in Bend that depends on early child care programs. - COURTESY OF SARAH BYSTROM
  • Courtesy of Sarah Bystrom
  • The Bystroms are a working family of four in Bend that depends on early child care programs.

To try to help new programs open, the Council voted unanimously on Dec. 2 to fully exempt child care providers from transportation system development charges through December 2022. SDCs are fees assessed to offset the impact that new or expanding development has on public infrastructure. (Previously providers received a 70% exemption.) The Council also relaxed some zoning regulations to make finding suitable buildings easier, and City staffers are in conversation with a few large employers about establishing child care centers within their buildings.

"We have this process where we try to grab a child care provider when they start trying to permit their center, and we walk them through the process," Hemson said. "Of course, now our concern is not just adding new child care providers and slots in town, but how do we keep the ones that are here so we're not in an even deeper hole as we return to some semblance of normalcy in the future?"

Earlier this year, the City allocated $650,000 in CARES Act funding received in March to help struggling child care providers weather the pandemic, tapping NeighborImpact to distribute the funds. Along with tuition assistance programs, NeighborImpact provides business coaching, training in early education and technical assistance to current child care providers. Like City staff, it also coaches potential new providers through the application process.

Denise Hudson, NeighborImpact's child care resources coordinating specialist, spearheaded the effort to disperse the CARES Act funding.

"We were able to give grants out to 103 providers in Deschutes County," Hudson told the Source. "And there were four focus points as far as applying for money."

The focus points provided funding to cover increased operational costs (like personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and additional classroom supplies), costs of opening classes for school-aged children without care due to school closure, costs of opening weekends and evening programs and lost income from decreased attendance, like when the schools closed in March.

"We also did a few startup grants for a few programs that had already reached out to us," Karen Prow, the nonprofit's child care resources director, told the Source. "They wanted to work with us on Baby Promise, which is another program that we do here at NeighborImpact."

Baby Promise funds child care for up to 109 children at multiple providers in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties and Warm Springs. NeighborImpact also partners with Early Learning Hub of Central Oregon to provide business coaching to Baby Promise providers.

Challenges facing working families

According to a 2018 study led by Dr. Megan Pratt, assistant professor of Practice, Extension Family & Community Health at Oregon State University, over half of children in Deschutes County under the age of 6 are the child of a single working parent or two working parents.

Sarah Bystrom is a sales director and working mother of a family of four in Bend. She and her husband are raising two boys—one 3 years old and another age 20 months. They're fortunate enough to work from home, she told the Source, but the boys still require full-time care so the parents can focus on work.

EARLY CARE AND EDUCATION PROFILES: 2018 OREGON CHILD CARE RESEARCH PARTNERSHIP, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Early Care and Education Profiles: 2018 Oregon Child Care Research Partnership, Oregon State University

On a workday, Bystrom leaves the house at 7:20 to drop her youngest son at his daycare in northwest Bend, and her older son at preschool in northeast Bend. She then starts work at 8:10. At noon, she picks up her older son from preschool. Once home, he ideally takes a nap, and then at 3 PM she picks up her younger son.

"It's a lot of travel," Bystrom said. She says she feels lucky that both she and her husband work for companies that "recognize the parent struggle right now." Her husband works East-Coast hours, and she works West-Coast hours, often finishing her workday after the boys go to bed.

When the family moved here a few years ago, Bend was already a child care desert. According to a 2019 Oregon State University study co-authored by Pratt, families with children under the age of 3 in every county in Oregon live in a child care desert. Less than a quarter of Oregon's children 5 and under have access to a regulated child care—12% of infants and toddlers and 29% of preschool-age children.

Hemson of the City of Bend said potential infant and toddler providers face several unique challenges. Salary costs are higher because classes are smaller, and there are increased safety requirements since infants and toddlers need extra help in an emergency.

"It's really tough because of the type of building code you fall under," Hemson said. "You fall under the same sort of code as an intensive care unit or a prison, where essentially the people in there can't get out by themselves if there's a fire."

Upon arriving to Bend, the Bystroms immediately joined several waitlists looking for care for their eldest, an infant at the time.

"And we haven't gotten off any of those waitlists," Bystrom said, noting that the programs were waitlisted for three to four years.

"Even though we would be paying more than we were hoping for a center here, we also weren't getting in," Bystrom said. "So, the budget conversation never really came afloat." Once old enough, the eldest son aged into a preschool and finding care became easier.

"A lot of programs start at 2 1/2 and potty trained, said Bystrom. "So, if your kiddo is 2 1/2 and potty trained, a whole new world opens up." But then the pandemic hit, and providers closed. The Bystroms hired a nanny for the summer but the cost wasn't sustainable. Since then, some providers, including the programs the Bystroms attend, reopened under emergency licensing. However, the whole process remains difficult.

"On the weekends, having this stressor of not knowing if things are going to shut down, or if you're going to get in," said Bystrom. "You're constantly searching."

The Bystrom's younger son will age into the same program as his brother in fall 2021. But the spot will become available before the younger boy is technically old enough. The family will likely pay tuition at two programs for a month or two, so he doesn't lose his spot. It's a serious financial burden and cost prohibitive for many families.

Pratt's team is currently analyzing prices for child care in Oregon for 2020. The numbers aren't ready yet, but according to her team's 2018 study, the median annual price of center-based toddler care in Deschutes County was $9,600 a year. That exceeded the median cost of tuition at Oregon's public universities, which was shy of $8,000. It also meant minimum-wage workers would have to spend 44% of their income on toddler care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers child care affordable if it costs families less than 7% of their income, Pratt told the Source.

EARLY CARE AND EDUCATION PROFILES: 2018 OREGON CHILD CARE RESEARCH PARTNERSHIP, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Early Care and Education Profiles: 2018 Oregon Child Care Research Partnership, Oregon State University

Challenges facing child care providers

Katie Brandow, a licensed clinical social worker and founder/owner of the child care center, School of Enrichment in Bend, expanded her child care program in 2019. She thanks Hemson from the City of Bend for her application's success and says it's the help of NeighborImpact and CARES Act funding that kept her school open during the pandemic.

Brandow opened the in-home child care program that would grow into School of Enrichment in 2007. In 2009, she expanded her program into a licensed center, and in 2019 she opened the doors at the school's current 5-acre location in northeast Bend. Although she had already successfully expanded her program before, the process of moving into the 5-acre space still proved daunting because she needed a conditional use permit. CUPs allow businesses that align with community need to operate in areas that zoning would prevent.

"We had pre-application and mid-application reviews with probably a dozen members of the City of Bend staff," Brandow told the Source. "There was engineering. There was traffic. There was building. There were people who want to make sure that there's a spot to park bikes, and that the lights are right. That there's the right number of trees. That they're the right height and the right kind of trees—to more structural changes with the driveway and how wide it was."

Brandow says the biggest challenge with finalizing the CUP was installing an expensive 700-foot-long multi-use pathway.

"The most stressful part about it was that we were on a very short timeline," she said. "We had a matter of a few short months to get this conditional use permit done and get into that building and operating so we didn't leave nearly 100 families without child care."

She credits Hemson for the project's success.

"He's the only reason that thing happened on time," Brandow said. Then the pandemic hit. School of Enrichment temporarily closed March 13 with an uncertain future.

"I would say the hardest part about that was letting down our school family," Brandow said. "Parents who had their students enrolled at School of Enrichment, along with laying off teachers. It was a very scary time. We were unsure of what the future is going to hold, and then when we reopened there were still a lot of uncertainties about the virus."

The school reopened June 1, under new COVID-19 guidelines.

"The rules changed quite a bit June 1 and then again on Aug. 14," she said. "So, we've constantly been in a space of updating and changing the rules to make sure we're following the Early Learning Division Guidelines. We feel especially lucky at School of Enrichment because we have an administration staff to support those kinds of changes where other programs might be teaching and trying to implement the new rules."

The school depends on NeighborImpact for about 90% of the personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, Brandow said. Teachers had to update the curriculum to limit child-to-child interaction, and the center quickly opened a kindergarten class for 15 families without care due to school closures.

"We've experienced a dramatic increase in costs specific to payroll," she said. Along with all-day cleaning staff, the program requires additional substitute teachers to cover teachers who experience potential COVID exposure. Quarantined teachers are still paid, along with the substitutes.

"It's an extremely expensive cost to the program, and we're extremely grateful that we've received funding through the CARES Act to help support that," Brandow said. "But it's a temporary resolution. We wouldn't be able to sustain our current payroll without those grants."

Potential Long-Term Solutions

Early Learning Hub of Central Oregon and NeighborImpact want to address staffing and business challenges, like those Brandow described. For example, along with developing substitute-teacher pools like K-12 has, regional ELH Director Brenda Comini told the Source that they're looking into "micro-center models" for managing administrative tasks. Under the model, a main provider would oversee much of the administrative tasks, like paperwork, finding substitute teachers, ordering supplies and meals and maintaining licensing. Actual child care services would happen in smaller centers located throughout the service area—potentially carved out of spaces in larger buildings, like churches, community centers or office buildings, she said.

Comini says ELH is also looking to expand the supply of good teachers through Partners in Practice, a partnership with NeighborImpact and Central Oregon Community College.

"Providers can go to school and get certificates and move toward associate degrees and beyond in early care and education with tuition and books paid," Comini said. The classes cater to current workers and occur during nontraditional hours.

"So, it really is a workforce pathway tool," Comini said. "And we've had a fair number of participations from the folks at Warm Springs."

VIDEO: Mara Robles, bilingual quality improvement specialist for NeighborImpact's Child Care Resources Department:

Correction 12/23/2020: The numbers reflected in the "Stabilizing Median Income" graph in the print edition for this story contained incorrect labels for the median income axis. The online edition has been updated to reflect the correct values.

About The Author

Ashley Moreno

Ashley is an amateur cook, trained chemist and aspiring forest hag. Until she can move into a small hut in the woods with her chihuahua, Grendel, she passes her time playing board games and watching movies. She loves all things crafty, from brewing beer to crocheting amigurumi. She joined the Source in 2020.
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